Ever since it became clear that Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) Chairperson Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) would lead the pan-green camp in next year’s presidential election, she has made much of the fact that her party is willing to enter into dialogue with Beijing and had set up a think tank specifically to meet that need.
Tsai’s affirmation that the DPP would adopt a “pragmatic” approach to cross-strait relations and seek dialogue with various segments of Chinese society is not only a welcome development, but also a necessary one. Given China’s clout in practically all matters nowadays, from the environment to the economy, a small nation like Taiwan cannot afford to pretend that the giant next door doesn’t exist.
Although Tsai’s strategy for such dialogue remains somewhat vague, from what we have been able to glean so far, it represents a continuation of the opening orchestrated by President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) over the past three years, with a few more red lines and a stricter adherence to the principle of Taiwan’s sovereignty.
Welcome though Tsai’s remarks may be, we should remember that the DPP has already gone down that road. In fact, the first two years of former president Chen Shui-bian’s (陳水扁) first term were marked by optimism — not only in Taiwan, but also in Washington — that Taipei and Beijing could engage in constructive dialogue on a number of issues. That this gambit ultimately failed has often been blamed on Chen and his strong stance on Taiwanese independence, but the fact of the matter is, the experiment ultimately collapsed because of Beijing’s intransigence.
The main sticking point then, and what will likely re-emerge should Tsai’s DPP prevail in next January’s elections, is the clause at the core of the DPP charter: Taiwanese independence. Given that the chairperson has already made it clear that this fundamental policy was non-negotiable, it is easy to see that the dialogue between her party and the Chinese will continue to be carried out under the shadow of likely failure.
In the end, and best intentions notwithstanding on Tsai’s part, it is Beijing, not the DPP, which decides whether the two sides will talk. This is something that Tsai should bear in mind, and so should Ma and his Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT).
While private talks between the DPP and China have already begun, party officials close to the New Frontier Foundation, the think tank in charge of spearheading those efforts, have admitted that the frequency of such meetings had dwindled. While the reasons for less-frequent contacts can only be guessed at, this nevertheless highlights the fact that it is the DPP, and not Beijing, that will have to make requests for dialogue.
Beijing’s willingness to sit down with the DPP is the result of uncertainty over the outcome of January’s presidential election. A strong showing by Ma in that election could convince Beijing that it has little to gain from continuing dialogue with the pan-green camp and could shut it out completely.
The situation in which the DPP could soon find itself in is not without precedent. In the early 1980s, when conditions in Tibet were reportedly “at their best” since the end of the Cultural Revolution, the Dalai Lama’s government-in-exile found it extremely difficult to get access to Chinese officials in Beijing, which was in sharp contrast with a few years earlier, when Beijing had attempted to consolidate the legitimacy of its rule in Tibet by wooing the exiled Tibetan leader. Only by internationalizing the question of Tibet, such as addressing the US Congressional Human Rights Caucus during a visit to Washington, did his movement avoid falling into complete oblivion.
Tsai and her party should heed those lessons from history as they fashion their China policy. Only the insane repeat failed behavior with the expectation that the outcome will be different.
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