Tainan Mayor William Lai (賴清德) of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) on Monday last week said that his position is to have “friendly relations with China, while loving Taiwan.”
Soon afterward, the Presidential Office said that the position of President Tsai Ing-wen’s (蔡英文) administration has always been “coherent” with that.
The public might wonder whether Lai and Tsai have changed their core overnight.
The fact is that politicians have the right to set the political agenda and they use this, perhaps to enlarge their power, perhaps to maintain it. It is common to see politicians adjust or change their rhetoric.
There is a long-standing rumor that what used to be the DPP’s New Tide faction is supporting a 2020 presidential bid by Lai. This could be the main reason behind Lai’s decision a few months ago not to take the post of Presidential Office secretary-general.
One of the main reasons behind Tsai’s falling approval ratings is the poor cross-strait relationship. This is why Lai — who has a clear pro-Taiwanese independence stance and does not have to worry about being abandoned by fundamentalist supporters — has focused on gaining the support of swing voters hoping for improved cross-strait relations.
When Tsai, who knows precisely what Lai is up to, realized that he was making an early move to position himself for a presidential bid, she of course had to respond.
Moreover, Lai — who dared uphold his pro-independence stance when visiting China — can suddenly change his rhetoric, so why should the Presidential Office not do the same thing and say on behalf of Tsai that its position is in agreement with Lai’s.
For the sake of power, Lai and Tsai are moving toward the middle ground. Internally, they are trying to win the support of swing voters, while externally they are denying the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) exclusive support from swing voters.
Ahead of the next DPP presidential preliminary, Tsai and Lai know that they need the US’ endorsement. Following a series of events — including American Institute in Taiwan Chairman James Moriarty asking Tsai to “ease” cross-strait tensions, US President Donald Trump’s refusal to have a second telephone conversation with Tsai, the sudden transfer of National Security Council secretary-general Joseph Wu (吳釗燮) to Presidential Office secretary-general, the delay of US arms sales and the US Department of State’s hope that a cross-strait communication channel will be established to deal with the issue of detained human rights advocate Lee Ming-che (李明哲) — Tsai and Lai understand the omnipresence of US political pressure.
Facing US pressure, Lai and Tsai know that they should at least state their position to Washington — they might not be able to improve cross-strait relations at the moment, but they must declare that they are friendly toward China rather than “anti-China.” Only then will Washington accept that they are not trying to undermine US-China relations, while Beijing would see that they are not being provocative.
In terms of bargaining chips and resources, Tsai clearly has an advantage over Lai. As long as she tries to ease cross-strait tensions, she can start with herself and once her deeds match her words there can be a change in the state of “cold peace,” or “cold confrontation.”
Furthermore, she has the government behind her.
As long as Tsai is sincere about easing cross-strait tensions, she just has to say the word and the government will mobilize in accordance with her policy. In addition, she can authorize someone to establish a high-level communication channel with China through a foundation or a think tank.
In short, she can decide the pace and scale of improvements to cross-strait ties.
However, Lai is not entirely at a disadvantage.
First, compared with Tsai’s rich experience — which includes having played a key role in forming the state-to-state model of cross-strait relations, having been involved in the decisionmaking process that led to the “one country on each side” dictum, as well as having opposed the so-called “1992 consensus” and the calling of a meeting of the National Unification Council — Lai is relatively unburdened by the past, with the exception of his pro-Taiwanese independence stance.
Second, the reason Lai dares aspire to the presidency is the strong support of the former New Tide faction. With its capabilities and talent, many “big things” can be achieved.
Third, if Tsai can authorize someone to establish a high-level communication channel with China, so, of course, can Lai.
Edward Chen is a chair professor in Chinese Culture University’s Department of Political Science.
Translated by Lin Lee-kai
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