Redefining cross-strait relations

By Liu Shih-chung 劉世忠  / 

Sat, Sep 03, 2011 - Page 8

Faced with the complexity of cross-strait relations in their campaigning for January’s presidential election, the pan-blue and pan-green camps have attempted to differentiate their China policies in the simplest language possible to attract voters.

On Aug. 23, the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) released the highly anticipated National Security Strategy and Cross-Strait Economy and Trade policy elements of its 10-Year Policy Platform. As expected, maintaining stability was the primary focus. DPP Chairperson Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) even borrowed the discourse of her primary election opponent, Su Tseng-chang (蘇貞昌), by calling on the public to reach a “Taiwan consensus” through democratic means, based on the party’s 1999 “Resolution on Taiwan’s Future.”

Mainland Affairs Council Chairwoman Lai Shin-yuan (賴幸媛), who has wavered back and forth on the issue, listed 18 questions for Tsai.

President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) of the pan-blue camp and some media outlets repeated much of what they said during the 2008 presidential campaign, namely that cross-strait relations would become fraught with uncertainty if Tsai did not accept the “1992 consensus.” In response, Tsai has chosen clear tactics and strategic obfuscation, highlighting the government’s China-centric strategy by focusing on the need for regional multilateral balance and hedging against danger.

Tsai has denied the existence and reliability of the “1992 consensus,” while indicating that as president she would work to build a new basis for political dialogue. From the perspective of campaign strategy, it is only natural for Tsai to maintain a more cautious approach than Ma, while also leaving room for future talks about cross-strait peace, stability and a new framework for relations.

That allows her to focus on attacking Ma’s domestic performance over the next four months. Still, the question is whether Tsai would be able to resist pressure from China and the US, or if she would be forced to offer more unambiguous strategic assurances or even accept a different foundation for a future political dialogue. This is probably the greatest challenge she faces.

Both the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) have warned Tsai that cross-strait relations would be at risk if she does not accept the “1992 consensus.” It remains unclear how this will affect the attitude of crucial swing voters. After all, domestic issues remain the key factor when it comes to voter behavior. In addition, we have yet to see any concrete economic benefits from the government’s implementation of the Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement (ECFA) and 14 other cross-strait agreements.

If the KMT overplays the “Chinese threat,” it might even create the impression that it and the CCP are working together to interfere in Taiwan’s elections.

The KMT and the DPP are not the only two players in this cross-strait zero-sum-game: US President Barack Obama is in a difficult situation and questions about his leadership continue to be asked in light of his inability to handle the national debt and domestic unemployment, making his re-election uncertain.

This situation does not allow for any diplomatic mistakes. The higher up one gets in the US administration, the fewer officials care whether the “1992 consensus” is real or not — the key issues as far as they are concerned are “stability” and “peace.” Even if Tsai manages to convince them of the absurdity of the “1992 consensus” during her trip to the US this month and of her determination to build a “Taiwan consensus,” US experts familiar with the standoff between the pan-blue and pan-green camps will still want her to give certain concrete strategic assurances, or propose a new political foundation to restart dialogue with Beijing.

It is likely that Tsai will use her negotiation skills to delay such commitments until after the election, but the KMT and Beijing will work with Washington to pressure her, and could even take action prior to the election to help Ma.

China is also having problems. If Tsai wins the election without accepting the “1992 consensus” or proposing any alternative plan, would Beijing unilaterally end cross-strait dialogue between Taiwan’s Straits Exchange Foundation and China’s Association for Relations Across the Taiwan Straits? At that point Tsai would enjoy democratic legitimacy from her victory and Beijing would be blamed for undermining cross-strait relations.

The fact is that pragmatists in Beijing are taking Tsai’s unchanging cross-strait policies seriously and they understand that she will never accept the “1992 consensus” or propose an alternative plan during the election campaign. These pragmatists have already communicated with the DPP through the pan-green camp’s think tanks because they are thinking of ways to deal with a future Tsai administration. This is something to which leaders in the KMT, DPP, Beijing and Washington should give more thought.

Liu Shih-chung is a research fellow at the Taiwan Brain Trust.