Redefining Taiwan’s ‘status quo’

By Tung Chen-yuan 童振源  / 

Tue, Nov 24, 2015 - Page 8

Maintaining the “status quo” has become a core issue in the debate over cross-strait policy ahead of January’s presidential election.

Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) presidential candidate Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) in April said the fundamental principle and core objective of the DPP’s handling of cross-strait policy would be to “maintain the ‘status quo’” with China. President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) and the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) criticized Tsai, asking how she would be able to maintain the “status quo” if she does not recognize the so-called “1992 consensus.”

However, before any question of maintaining the “status quo” is addressed, one should first clarify what is the “status quo.”

According to an opinion poll conducted by National Chengchi University’s Election Study Center, if one excludes voters who support either rapid unification or the immediate declaration of independence, at present the broad concept of “maintaining the ‘status quo’” is supported by an average 85 percent of the public.

This includes maintaining the “status quo” in perpetuity, maintaining the “status quo” and later deciding whether to unify or declare independence, maintaining the “status quo” and then pursuing unification and maintaining the “status quo” and then declaring independence. However, the opinion poll does not clarify what “status quo” actually means.

The “status quo” is the balance of international power, public opinion and politics on either side of the Taiwan Strait which provides for a peaceful state of affairs between the two sides.

While not every nation — including Taiwan and China — is satisfied with the “status quo,” all parties are nevertheless unable or unwilling to use force to change the current “status quo.” By announcing her intention to maintain the “status quo,” Tsai is both showing respect for and safeguarding the “status quo.” Her policy is therefore a crucial tool for maintaining the “status quo” and ensuring peace across the Taiwan Strait.

The “status quo” can be interpreted on three levels: The international framework, the cross-strait framework — including the situation regarding unification or independence — and cross-strait exchanges and interaction.

Taiwan at present has neither the means nor the will to use military force to change the international system, which includes Taiwan’s participation in international organizations, and there is a consensus on this point among Taiwan’s political parties.

The “status quo” as emphasized by Tsai means the cross-strait framework and the situation regarding unification or independence, whereas when Ma talks of the “status quo,” he means cross-strait exchanges and interaction. Tsai and Ma interpret the “status quo” in different ways.

In June, Tsai said that if she wins she would continue to further the cross-strait relationship, and promote peace and stability according to the Republic of China (ROC) Constitution, majority public opinion and the accumulated achievements of more than 20 years of negotiations, exchanges and interaction between the two sides.

In the middle of last month, she said there are two core components to maintaining the “status quo” — preserving Taiwan’s free and democratic way of life and the existing constitutional system, while also guaranteeing the continuation of peaceful and stable relations between the two sides.

As for the DPP’s past dissatisfaction with aspects of the ROC Constitution — and the party’s desire to hold a referendum on amending it— Tsai’s stated position is to adhere to mainstream public opinion, which supports maintaining the “status quo.”

Tsai has also said that she would also adhere to the Constitution and respect the more than 20 years of negotiations, exchanges and interaction that has taken place between the two sides in order to uphold Taiwan’s free and democratic way of life, and guarantee continued peace and stability across the Strait.

Ma defines the “status quo” through the lens of the past seven-and-a-half years of exchanges and interaction between the two sides. Thus, Ma believes that if a future DPP government does not recognize the “1992 consensus,” then the current “status quo” — in terms of exchanges and interaction with China — would not be maintainable.

Beijing says non-recognition of the “1992 consensus” would cause a tectonic shift in the cross-strait relationship and herald a return to the old ways of conflict between the two sides.

Ma defines the “status quo” in terms of what he has been able to achieve via his cross-strait policy. However, during his second term in office, the approval rating for his cross-strait policy has been less than 30 percent and the public’s dissatisfaction with his policy has reached as high as 60 percent, according to polls.

In order to distinguish between different methods for maintaining the “status quo,” one must first clearly define what the “status quo” involves. Tsai’s definition is fairly close to what the public understands and wants to see.

In addition, Tsai’s policy of maintaining the “status quo” would in itself provide a crucial method to further guarantee peace and stability across the Strait.

Ma’s and Beijing’s position — that the “1992 consensus” must be maintained as a foundation for cross-strait exchange and interaction — does not enjoy the support of the majority of Taiwanese, and as such it is not the kind of “status quo” that Tsai would be able to maintain.

Tung Chen-yuan is a distinguished professor at National Chengchi University’s Graduate Institute of Development Studies.

Translated by Edward Jones