President Tsai Ing-wen’s (蔡英文) Double Ten National Day address has attracted a great deal of analysis and many different interpretations. One core question is why Tsai chose this occasion to discuss Taiwan’s national status. What was her main motive and what effect did she intend to have?
These are issues that clearly need further clarification.
The section of Tsai’s speech that attracted the most attention internationally was, not surprisingly, the part where she laid out “four commitments” that she said should serve as common ground for all Taiwanese, regardless of political affiliation.
The commitments were to liberal democracy and constitutional government; that the Republic of China (ROC) is not subject to the jurisdiction of the People’s Republic of China (PRC); to protect the nation’s sovereignty; and that the future of the ROC must be decided in accordance with the will of Taiwanese.
First, it is important to understand the historical foundation of Tsai’s “four commitments.”
At the Democratic Progressive Party’s (DPP) eighth annual national assembly on May 7 and 8, 1999, delegates passed a “Resolution on Taiwan’s Future.”
The resolution determined that the DPP would henceforth bring itself into the framework of the ROC and participate in the electoral process as a means to achieve its political goals. The resolution was the result of a consensus reached within the party.
The most significant section of the resolution was as follows: “Taiwan is a sovereign and independent country. In accordance with international laws, Taiwan’s jurisdiction covers Taiwan, Penghu, Kinmen, Matsu, and its affiliated islands and territorial waters. Taiwan, although named the Republic of China under its current Constitution, is not subject to the jurisdiction of the People’s Republic of China. Any change in the independent status quo must be decided by all residents of Taiwan by means of a plebiscite.”
One can clearly see that Tsai’s “four commitments” pledge was essentially conceived more than two decades ago and codified in the resolution, and has been the consistent position of the DPP.
Tsai used the address to publicly expound upon what she views as the nation’s most important values. The 1999 resolution is simply the document of a political party, but by using her position as president and delivering the speech at a nationally important ceremonial occasion, Tsai elevated the DPP’s commitments to the status of formal government policy.
This did not only signify the national direction under the DPP government, it also created a framework for future leaders of the party to follow. In other words, it established a “Tsai Ing-wen doctrine,” and whoever succeeds Tsai must abide by this framework.
Tsai is to step down as president in May 2024. During her remaining time in office, as is typical of presidents and prime ministers the world over, Tsai will be anxious to secure her legacy and leave her mark on history, in addition to ensuring that a smooth and stable transition of power takes place. This is entirely understandable.
Tsai has set the tone by embracing the ROC and then juxtaposing it against the PRC to clearly demonstrate the reality that Taiwan is an independent and sovereign nation. Taking this logic forward, there is no need for Taiwan to declare independence or to formerly establish a “Republic of Taiwan.”
Tsai’s restraint is also a reassurance to the international community that, going forward, the DPP would continue to responsibly uphold regional peace and stability, and would achieve this by adhering to a predictable cross-strait policy.
Since Tsai has publicly fastened her party’s colors to the mast of the ROC, Tsai needed to define the ROC.
“The Republic of China came to Taiwan in 1949, 72 years ago,” she said.
Tsai deliberately used the Gregorian calendar, rather than the ROC calendar, which starts with the foundation of the republic in 1912, as the starting point of a recognized Taiwanese community consciousness. Tsai wanted to highlight that, for Taiwanese, the beginning of the ROC means 1949, since prior to that date, Taiwan was not a part of the ROC.
Tsai also deliberately chose not to use the 1991 constitutional amendment that abolished the Temporary Provisions Effective During the Period of National Mobilization for Suppression of the Communist Rebellion (動員戡亂時期臨時條款) to define the starting point for a Taiwanese community consciousness.
This is because Tsai recognizes that there can be no national unity if those who were not involved in Taiwan’s transition to democracy are excluded and made to feel like “outsiders,” and the offspring of authoritarians. Tsai realizes that if Taiwan is to further solidify its democracy it must be a broad church that embraces all people pre-democratization and all those who recognize the existence of a distinct Taiwanese identity.
This is why Tsai chose 1949 as the key unifying point for all people within this nation’s history: the date when the ROC retreated to Taiwan at the end of the Chinese Civil War and began direct administration over Taiwan.
Tsai has skillfully played the ROC card. The Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) and the Chinese Communist Party should take careful note or they will find themselves in a tight spot, outmaneuvered and ceding strategic ground.
Tzou Jiing-wen is editor-in-chief of the Liberty Times (the sister newspaper of the Taipei Times).
Translated by Edward Jones
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