Written by Michael Mazza.
Taiwan’s November 2018 nine-in-one elections looked like a major setback for the ruling Democratic Progressive Party. The DPP won only six of twenty county magistrate and mayoral contests, with the Kuomintang taking the longstanding DPP stronghold of Kaohsiung. There were questions not only about whether President Tsai Ing-wen could win reelection in early 2020, but whether she would even be her party’s nominee. China’s Taiwan Affairs Office was essentially claiming victory when Xi Jinping gave the DPP an unexpected shot in the arm.
On January 2, Xi gave a speech to mark the 40th anniversary of the “Message to Compatriots in Taiwan.” The speech’s my-way-or-the-highway tone was not entirely surprising—no Chinese leader wins domestic political points by going easy on Taiwan and claims that Taiwan has no choice other than unification and that force would not be ruled out as a means to achieve it were consistent with past rhetoric. What did surprise was Xi’s tacit linkage of the “1992 consensus” with a “one country, two systems” approach to unification. Yet having observed Hong Kong’s slow transformation into a Chinese city in which individual rights are curtailed and Chinese Communist Party rule goes effectively unchallenged, citizens of Taiwan have little interest in a “one country, two systems” arrangement.
Meanwhile, partisans in Taiwan have always been divided on the so-called “1992 consensus,”. A term of art devised by one of the Taiwanese participants at a meeting between the Straits Exchange Foundation (SEF) and the Association for Relations Across the Taiwan Straits (ARATS), pseudo-governmental organizations responsible for cross-Strait ties, in which the two sides purportedly agreed that there is “one China”, and that each side holds its own interpretation of what “one China” means. Unlike the KMT, which was in power during the talks, the DPP rejects the “1992 consensus” as the foundation for contemporary cross-Strait relations.
Xi Jinping’s strident speech and his linkage of the “1992 consensus” and “one country, two systems” gave Tsai Ing-wen an opening to demonstrate steadfast leadership and unravel the narrative of a floundering presidency. Tsai deftly, if somewhat questionably, claimed that Xi’s speech confirmed the DPP’s long-standing concerns about the underlying point of the “1992 consensus,” which she said Beijing defined as “‘one China’ and ‘one country, two systems.’” She noted, “the vast majority of Taiwanese also resolutely oppose ‘one country, two systems,’” opposition that she, in a clever turn of phrase, referred to as the “Taiwan consensus.”
Tsai went on to “remind the Beijing authorities that a superpower must act with the demeanor and take the responsibility of a superpower,” implying that Beijing was doing no such thing. She closed her remarks with a challenge to Beijing: “Democratic values are the values and way of life that Taiwanese cherish, and we call upon China to bravely move towards democracy. This is the only way they can truly understand Taiwanese people’s ideas and commitments.”
The political adroitness of Tsai’s remarks—and the foible of Xi’s—was that they forced KMT politicians to comment as well. KMT chairman Wu Den-yih and KMT presidential candidate Eric Chu both made statements insisting that the “1992 consensus” and “one country, two systems” are entirely separate. According to the New York Times, Wayne Chiang, a KMT legislator and a great-grandson of Chiang Kai-shek, “praised Ms. Tsai’s emphasis on the need for Beijing to respect Taiwan’s democracy and freedom.” He also asserted that “the majority of Taiwanese people also find it impossible to accept ‘one country, two systems.’” Up-and-coming legislator Jason Hsu said in an interview, as paraphrased by the Times, “that Mr. Xi’s speech showed that the 1992 Consensus was no longer viable for his party as an approach to relations with China and that the Kuomintang needed to think of a new strategy.”
Three important questions have emerged in the wake of this affair.
Why did Xi Jinping do it?
After its performance in the local elections less than two months prior, the more China-friendly KMT appeared to have a clear path to victory at the national polls next year. Xi Jinping singlehandedly complicated that path. During a recent trip to Taipei, a colleague and I asked everyone with whom we met, both in and out of government, why Xi Jinping would deliver a speech seemingly designed to breathe life into the DPP and to set the KMT back on its heels.
Our interlocutors consistently gave us two interrelated answers. First, they argued that the speech’s intended audience was domestic. Facing a weakening economy and more public challenges to his leadership, Xi had to deliver an address that would garner support across the CCP and leave no openings for criticism that he is weak on Taiwan.
Second, Taiwan interlocutors argued that Xi Jinping no longer sees the KMT as a useful partner in Beijing’s quest for unification and that he has concluded the battle for hearts and minds has been lost. In other words, Xi knows that no matter what he says, uncoerced unification is simply not in the cards—certainly not in any timeframe that is useful for Xi. This conclusion is correct, though Xi’s embracing it does not bode well for cross-Strait stability.
It is also possible, though this is not an argument we heard in Taipei, that Xi Jinping is beginning to prepare the Chinese people for the use of force against Taiwan. This is not to say that war is imminent. But if he believes that Taiwan will not willingly agree to unification and if unification is an important part of his vision for the “great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation”—and he has said it is—then use of force becomes a more attractive option, especially if he perceives the cross-Strait and Sino-American military balances as shifting in China’s favor.
How will China behave over the coming year?
Another argument heard in Taipei is that a split has emerged between China’s senior leadership and the TAO. While Xi has given up on the KMT as a partner for unification, the TAO continues to follow a traditional course of implicitly and sometimes explicitly supporting the KMT and weakening the hand of the nominally pro-independence DPP. If such a split does exist, it makes predicting Chinese behaviour over the next 12 months even more difficult.
One would normally expect China to take steps aimed at convincing the Taiwan electorate that life would be better with KMT leadership, and to eschew overly threatening behavior. Such an approach would likely favor economic pressure over military intimidation and feature subtle and not-so-subtle promises about cross-Strait ties and even Taiwan’s broader international engagement under a KMT government.
But if Xi Jinping is less concerned than previous leaders with who is in charge in Taipei and if his ongoing pressure campaign on the island is driven as much (if not more so) by societal trends on the island as by the current DPP leadership (as I argue here), then the Chinese approach to Taiwan over the next year might look somewhat different. One possibility is continuing pressure on multiple fronts—economic, military, diplomatic, rhetorical—driven from the top, paired with more-or-less pro-KMT rhetoric from the TAO. How such an approach would interact with domestic politics in Taiwan is difficult to discern.
How will the DPP and KMT navigate cross-Strait waters ahead of the national elections?
Dissatisfaction with domestic policies explains the DPP’s defeat last November. Domestic issues will likely again be front and center in the coming year’s national election campaigns, but cross-Strait relations and foreign policy will play a far greater role than they did the nine-in-one contests.
On that front, there is not much Tsai can do to relieve Chinese pressure on the island. Look for her to continue reminding voters of Xi’s January speech and to take advantage of any hawkish rhetoric emanating from Beijing in the coming months—she’ll seek to portray herself as standing between the CPP and Taiwan’s sovereignty. On broader foreign policy, Tsai will want to demonstrate that under her leadership, the U.S.-Taiwan relationship has reached new heights. The relationship is healthy and stable, but at this point there are no major achievements for her to point to since 2016. She has made clear that one of her government’s top priorities is a bilateral free trade agreement with the United States. Will she take bold action, like dropping the ban on ractopamine-treated pork product imports, in order to jumpstart talks with Washington? Time will tell.
Facing an energized DPP with its back against the wall, the KMT should not assume that those domestic issues that carried it to victory in late 2018 will do so in early 2020. When it comes to external relations, the challenge for the KMT will be to define a coherent approach to China in light of Xi Jinping’s clearly malign intentions towards the island. Indeed, the KMT may want to consider a bold course-correction of its own. It has long been committed to the “1992 consensus,” but it is not at all clear that the consensus is all that important to Taiwan voters (or that many voters even know what it is). Might a creative KMT politician running for his party’s nomination argue that the consensus is no longer operable and put forth a new framework for cross-Strait relations—perhaps one which still embraces a loosely defined “one China,” but emphasizes the role of Taiwan’s own values and interests in engagement with Beijing, and conditions any road to unification on a choice made by the citizens of Taiwan?
There is still nearly a year until Taiwan’s next general elections. Campaign season is sure to be buffeted by Chinese actions, international events, and domestic developments. Nobody can predict now how those campaigns will play out, but early indicators suggest that politics are about to get very interesting in Taiwan.
Michael Mazza is a Visiting Fellow is a visiting fellow in foreign and defense policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI). Image credit: CC by the Office of the President, Republic of China (Taiwan)