Since May 20, President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) has extended a lot of olive branches to China. For example, Tsai has reined in the independence-leaning words and actions of Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) officials and legislators.
In her own announcements, Tsai always refers to China as “mainland China,” except for a letter addressed to DPP members on Sept. 28. She has also instructed her government to keep the term “mainland China” in all official letters and documents.
She has appointed non-DPP members to top positions, such as Minister of Foreign Affairs David Lee (李大維) — who announced that the DPP government would not officially promote Taiwan’s membership of the UN — as well as the chairwoman of the Mainland Affairs Council (MAC), president of the Straits Exchange Foundation (SEF) and her representative to the APEC summit.
Tsai’s government temporarily suspended an invitation for the Dali Lama to visit. It also terminated the research and development program of the mid-range Yun-Feng (雲鋒, Cloud Peak) missile.
While not publicly endorsing the People’s Republic of China’s (PRC) legal position in the South China Sea, the Tsai administration’s reactions to the Permanent Court of Arbitration’s ruling on the waters were almost identical to those of Beijing.
Unfortunately, Beijing’s policy toward Taiwan has proved to be inflexible. From Beijing’s perspective, the so-called “1992 consensus” is the political base that allowed the benign evolution of cross-strait relations toward a “status quo.” It is also the political base that facilitated 23 cross-strait agreements since 2008.
If Tsai is meant to maintain the “status quo” and inherit all the benefits of cross-strait cooperation, she should accept the “1992 consensus.” Given that Tsai is unwilling to accept the “1992 consensus,” which asserts that Taiwan and China belong to “one and the same China,” the “status quo” across the Taiwan Strait has been altered by her. What Beijing has done since May is simply to show what an altered “status quo” would look like.
Beijing indicated during the presidential campaign that unless Tsai accepted its precondition of the “1992 consensus,” which it says means Taiwan and China belong to “one China,” there would be no official or semi-official cross-strait communications, no international space for Taiwan and no more economic handouts.
Despite Beijing’s vow of “three noes” to Tsai’s government, what it has implemented is a standard united-front strategy, namely, to divide and rule Taiwanese society. For example, the six KMT and two independent local government heads who accept the “1992 consensus” were well received by Beijing with a red carpet and swift promises to send Chinese tourists to their jurisdictions and Chinese delegations to purchase their agricultural products.
China’s Taiwan Affairs Office (TAO) has laid out its subsidy plan to invite young Taiwanese to start businesses in China. The vice mayor of Shanghai visited Taipei, announcing his city’s support for Taipei as the host of next year’s Summer Universiade.
On the other hand, official channels of communication between the TAO and the MAC, and between the SEF and the Association for Relations Across the Taiwan Straits have been severed; Taiwan was forced to participate in the World Health Assembly under written notice of the “one China” principle in its invitation letter — although with Taiwan’s protest; Taiwan was denied participation in the International Civil Aviation Organization; the nation’s title at the World Economic Forum was changed from “Chinese Taipei” to “Taiwan, China”; Taiwanese accused of telecom frauds in Kenya, Cambodia and Malaysia were repatriated to Beijing — or abducted — rather than being sent to Taiwan.
All these incidents were designed by Beijing to show it is able to “punish” the DPP government for its reluctance to accept the “1992 consensus.”
While such punitive actions might be a face-saving measures in a response to the TAO’s failure to win the hearts and minds of Taiwanese over the past eight years, they also show the temporary nature of a “peace bonus” and the ceiling of beneficial effects from accepting the “1992 consensus.”
The worst thing in the minds of Taiwanese is China’s decision to abduct the fraud suspects for the sake of displaying its judicial power over Taiwan under its “one China” principle.
The question is: Were these punitive measures anticipated by Tsai’s government? I would argue, except for the case of the extraditions, they were all anticipated.
That is why Tsai’s government has reiterated its intention and resolution to maintain the “status quo.” While not verbally accepting the “1992 consensus,” Tsai’s government in fact honored and implemented the KMT’s cross-strait policies and agreements, which were based on the “1992 consensus.”
However, strategic mistrust between Chinese authorities and the DPP administration prevents olive branches from crossing the Taiwan Strait. Because Tsai is regarded by Beijing as the originator of the “state-to-state” model linking Taiwan and China, her words and deeds need to be tested.
Therefore, even if Tsai verbally accepted the “1992 consensus,” Beijing would still question her sincerity and demand action to prove her conversion to the concept of “one China.”
On the other hand, Tsai was elected as the president with a specific pledge to maintain the “status quo” without explicitly accepting the “1992 consensus.”
The KMT’s candidate, New Taipei City Mayor Eric Chu (朱立倫), did pledge to use the “1992 consensus” to promote cross-strait cooperation, but he was defeated.
That is why Tsai in an interview with the Wall Street Journal on Oct. 5 urged Beijing to take a second look at her democratic mandate.
Tsai said that she would not bow to China’s pressure, and indeed no democratically elected leader in Taiwan would go against the will of the people.
Did the Chinese leadership fail to understand how democracy works in Taiwan? Of course not. The Chinese leadership has a detailed and rational calculation of pros and cons for each option it prepares.
What China has implemented is simply its dominant strategy and any action deviating from this would entail a net loss.
For China, the dominant strategy is to step up diplomatic and economic pressure on the government in the hopes that Tsai makes the mistake of retaliating, thus escalating tensions across the Taiwan Strait to a tipping point, when the US would have no choice but rein in Taiwan.
China anticipates that Tsai would not dare to retaliate, knowing that she has few cards to play. If Tsai punches above Taiwan’s weight, leading to an unwanted spiraling of tensions, the US would rein in Taiwan.
Therefore, Beijing has nothing to lose by pressing Tsai further. China’s dominant strategy prevents Tsai’s olive branches from reaching Beijing.
Worse still, it might contribute to an escalation of tensions across the Taiwan Strait.
David Huang is an associate research fellow at Academia Sinica’s Institute of European and American Studies.
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