The first anniversary of President Tsai Ing-wen’s (蔡英文) inauguration is approaching. To mark the event, Tsai gave a media interview in which she put forward a new approach to interactions across the Taiwan Strait using the slogan “new situation, new test paper, new model” (新情勢、新問卷、新模式).
This follows an approach to which she first gave voice in an interview with Reuters: For the majority of her first year in power she talked constantly about maintaining the “status quo” — the smallest common denominator in Taiwanese society and the greatest show of goodwill.
China must reconsider cross-strait relations and take a more flexible approach. Taiwan and China must look at the new situation together and consider a peaceful, stable and beneficial framework that would also benefit regional peace and prosperity.
Tsai’s proposal of a new structural, cooperative cross-strait relationship, just like the goal of maintaining the “status quo,” is an abstract and flexible way to conduct cross-strait affairs that requires further elaboration and interpretation. However, she has at least described her hopes for the future of the relationship.
In the Reuters interview, Tsai said that rather than China talking about her submitting an incomplete test paper, “it would be better to say that Taiwan and China have both been given a new test paper and we hope that China will address it with fresh eyes.”
The “incomplete test paper” (未完成的答卷) — which is how Beijing has referred to Tsai’s inauguration address — is of course the “test paper” that Beijing wants Taiwan and Tsai’s administration to respond to. China’s position is very clear: It seeks recognition of “one China” and the “red lines” implicit in that principle.
Perhaps Beijing would interpret the remarks as a game of words that brings nothing new to the table. Given the longstanding mutual suspicions across the Strait, this is only to be expected.
However, Tsai is trying to withstand pressure from the “deep-green” pro-independence camp. That is difficult in itself, and were she to also openly accept “one China,” she would not only be acting against her own ideological convictions, she would be unable to explain it to the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) and the rest of the pan-green camp.
In the past, China has adopted a carrot-and-stick approach, on the one hand making concessions to Taiwanese businesspeople in China and allowing Chinese to travel to Taiwan as tourists, while on the other relying on verbal attacks, saber rattling and Taiwan’s international isolation.
The eruption of the 2014 Sunflower movement and defeat of the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) in last year’s elections proved that strategy a complete failure. Because China only listens to the KMT, which whispers sweet platitudes into its ear, it has alienated the vast majority of Taiwanese. Beijing’s failure to understand the Taiwanese mind has led to the collapse of its Taiwan strategy.
In her interview, Tsai made clear references to regional stability, peace and Taiwan’s future, freedom and democracy as well as human rights. These values are important to Taiwan and they are part of Taiwan’s core interests. Participation in the WHO and the detention of human rights advocate Lee Ming-che (李明哲) are examples of cross-strait issues that are of real concern to Taiwanese. They are also issues on which China has submitted an incomplete test paper and that Taiwan wants answers to.
Beijing and Taipei have been given a new test paper. If each side could address the other side’s concerns and consider what their own answers should be, perhaps they could gradually find some common ground as the two sides continue to address problematic issues through dialogue. If that would happen, there would be hope for Tsai’s new strategic approach.
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