Tsai’s Cross-Strait Policy: One China, Evolving Strategies

Written by Jeremy Huai-Che Chiang.

Image credit: 五月二十日 中華民國第十四任總統蔡英文就職演說by 總統府/Flickr, license CC BY 2.0

In the run up to the 2020 Taiwan Elections, the cross-Strait policies of both incumbent Tsai Ing-wen and her main opponent, Kuomintang (KMT) candidate and Kaohsiung City Mayor Han Kuo-yu, are emblematic of two trends.

In the past few months, both Tsai and Han have leveled up their talk on the Republic of China/Taiwan’s sovereignty and rejection of Beijing’s proposed “One Country Two System” scenario for Taiwan. There are electoral considerations to this, not least because of the ongoing Hong Kong protests, but also how Taiwanese public opinion has been increasingly taking notice of sovereignty issues. According to a recent poll by Academia Sinica, Taiwanese now care more about sovereignty than the economy, the first reversal since this poll started in 2013. Stability in cross-Strait ties is still held dearly by the Taiwanese public, but people now have heightened worries over the future of the country’s autonomy.

This trend, however, stands in contrast with how both the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) and the increasingly fragmented KMT have been slowly moving towards the unification end in the unification-independence spectrum of Taiwanese politics. Under Tsai’s presidency, the DPP camp has been attempting to move towards a relatively centre position in regards to her cross-Strait policy, prompting dissent among deep-green factions, while the KMT has allowed the legitimation of several personalities widely perceived as pro-China within party ranks. The interplay between these two trends show how a rising China has pressured Taiwanese parties to rethink cross-Strait policy positions, while at the same time hardening discontent from Taiwanese citizens, which in turn puts further burden on parties to address sovereignty concerns in elections. The reconcilability and irreconcilability of these two trends has proved to be a mounting difficulty for Taiwanese political leaders, especially Tsai.

Tsai’s First Stab at Cross-Strait Relations

Tsai has not been static on her public views towards China, while the two trends mentioned above have had a clear influence on the evolution of Tsai’s thinking. When Chen Shui-bian’s (2000-2008) administration dealt with the challenge of balancing their stances on Taiwan’s sovereignty against a realistic need to engage with their emerging neighbor, Tsai, as Minister of the Mainland Affairs Council, was responsible for interpreting Chen’s partial acceptance of the “1992 Consensus.” Despite Chen’s “Four Noes and One Without” and initial conciliatory attitude towards China setting a clear constraint on Tsai, many believe she was consistently uncomfortable with the notion of a “1992 Consensus,” especially its underlying “One China” framework. However, this seemed to be more an issue of negotiation positions than a clear stance on the unification/independence question.

After Tsai became party chairperson and later the DPP’s 2012 presidential candidate, the “peaceful but recognising differences, peaceful and seeking commonality” notion emerged as her first attempt to take a stronger stab at cross-Strait relations in February 2011, during which she emphasised that while the two sides of the Strait had differences in historical memory, belief systems, political systems and social identities, both sides have shared responsibility and interests to pursue peaceful and stable relations. In Tsai’s thinking, however, dealing with China alone was not a viable option. She would still want the Taiwan Strait issue to be dealt with under a multilateral trade regime and an international security framework. In addition, Tsai further proposed the “Taiwan Consensus” on the home front, which emphasised the importance of a democratic consensus-searching procedure in defining the Taiwanese government’s negotiating basis with China. It was still more of a procedural framework, rather than a definite stand on the unification/independence question. By emphasising the non-consensus nature of the 1992 Consensus and the will of Taiwanese citizens in deciding the future of cross-Strait relations, Tsai hoped that the “Taiwan Consensus” notion could resonate with centrist voters and consolidate green camp supporters. She failed to secure victory, however. Ma Ying-jeou was still electorally popular, and the popular impression of the DPP’s “failed” cross-Strait policies during Chen Shui-bian’s time still cost Tsai dearly.

Reconciling“Taiwan” and the “Republic of China”

On the road to the 2016 election, Tsai gradually modified her messages regarding cross-Strait relations. After 2012, she made effort to build track-two channels and exchanges with China, while also steadily moving towards a cross-Strait narrative that placed more weight on the Constitution of the Republic of China and an emphasis on policy pragmatism. The 2014 Sunflower Movement also made the public, especially the young generation, more receptive towards the DPP’s stance on cross-Strait relations. In her 2016 victory speech, Tsai stated that “the Republic of China constitutional order, the results of cross-Strait negotiations, interactions and exchanges, and democratic principles and the will of the Taiwanese people, will become the foundation for future cross-strait relations.” Evidently, elements of the “Taiwan Consensus” are still there. In her inauguration speech later that year, Tsai described the 1992 cross-Strait talks as a historical fact, during which “there was joint acknowledgement of setting aside differences to seek common ground.” This does not point to the Beijing-preferred terms “1992 Consensus,” but is still an obvious attempted concession on the part of Tsai. Tsai is widely seen as trying to unify the two concepts of “Taiwan” and the “Republic of China” into one new overarching framework, a response which targets continued allegations by the KMT that her party has always been aiming to destroy the Republic of China with a new Taiwanese Republic. This could also help her consolidate support among centrist voters.

These overtures and Tsai’s status quo-leaning approach, however, have never materialised into reciprocal goodwill from Beijing. As a response to China’s continued poaching of diplomatic allies (seven since Tsai’s inauguration in 2016) and animosity towards her administration, Tsai and Taiwan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs has been gradually replacing designations such as “Beijing Authorities” and “mainland China” with “China” in their official statements, a clear act of defiance against Beijing’s favoured cross-Strait discursive language. Protests in Hong Kong and alleged Chinese electoral interference have also pushed her to talk more on sovereignty issues in the past few years of her tenure. When Chinese President Xi Jinping presented a speech commemorating the 40th anniversary of the “Message to Compatriots in Taiwan” and iterated further exploration of a “One Country, Two Systems” scenario for Taiwan in January 2019, Tsai offered a swift rebuttal. Tsai stated that Taiwan has never accepted the “1992 Consensus, “the fundamental reason being “the Beijing authorities’ definition of the “1992 Consensus” is “one China” and “One Country, Two Systems.”” Tsai stated resolutely that this was something that the vast majority of Taiwanese would absolutely not accept. For further cross-Strait exchanges, Tsai specified “consolidating democracy” and “strengthening national security” as two important bases. This rebuttal has been widely seen as a key factor in re-galvanising the DPP base after the 2018 local election defeats. After fending off her more independence-leaning opponent William Lai in the DPP presidential primaries this year, Tsai’s cross-Strait approach has been further reaffirmed by the party-base, while large-scale protests breaking out in Hong Kong provided her an environment to show the general public the reasoning behind her cross-Strait approach. Deep green supporters were reassured when William Lai was announced as Tsai’s running mate in mid-November 2019.

During the televised presidential debates later in December 2019, Tsai spoke of the “Four Recognitions” during her discussion of cross-Strait relations, which states that people should recognise that it is China that is changing the status quo in cross-Strait relations, and that China has also been using the “1992 Consensus” to exploit Taiwan. The “One China” of the “One China, Different Interpretations” will only grow larger, while the “Different Interpretations” will slowly fade away, Tsai contended. She also stated that sovereignty should not be exchanged for short-term economic gains, and that China has been using disinformation to infiltrate Taiwan’s society, thus necessitating Taiwan’s measured responses with a national security net. How do we explain this staunch language? Electoral considerations are certainly there, and we need to bear in mind that this was a televised debate aimed at a domestic audience. We could anticipate that without further provocation from China, cross-Strait relations does have some potential to lessen tensions after the elections in January 2020.

Tsai is a moderate and will almost certainly remain one if she wins a second term. She also has a consistent record as a stable preserver of the status quo, despite her stance on cross-Strait relations still not being accepted by Beijing. But on the other hand, with rising public concerns regarding Chinese united front activities in Taiwan, the Tsai administration does have legitimate reasons to call out foul plays and enact policies in response. Her management of cross-Strait relations has so far been widely supported by Washington DC, being widely seen as providing stability and ensuring the status quo against Beijing’s ramped up assertiveness. The ongoing strategic competition between the US and China, however, might also continue to shape the direction of Tsai’s cross-Strait agenda beyond its original bilateral nature.


As polls indicate citizens increasingly consolidating their separate Taiwanese identity and yearning for an independent future, Taiwan’s political parties have been bearing the brunt of China’s rising weight on the international stage.

Tsai and the DPP currently see China as a destabiliser not only in cross-Strait relations, but also the global order. Tsai, however, has still stuck to her policy of maintaining the status quo. Besides diversifying the country’s economic networks through the New Southbound Policy, Tsai’s administration has also built ties with like-minded democracies such as the US, EU and its member states, Japan and Australia. These efforts help build international support for Taiwan’s continued autonomy. As China’s authoritarian trend strengthens under Xi and its rising influence causes anxiety in many countries around the world, Taiwan has found some space between the strategic competition of China and the US. Concerns about unwanted Chinese influence have also prompted these like-minded countries to further cooperate with Taiwan. In the long run, however, the DPP still needs to work on reversing this downward spiral in cross-Strait relations, even if such improvement can only occur with Beijing’s consent. If Tsai wins the 2020 elections and offers new overtures, it will be interesting to see how Beijing reacts. Despite current circumstances, this is still a worthy project.

Jeremy Huai-Che Chiang is a Non-Resident Research Associate at the Taiwan-Asia Exchange Foundation and MPhil Candidate at the University of Cambridge, U.K.

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