What will the re-elected Tsai-DPP government’s foreign and defence policies look like?

Written by Yu-Hua Chen.

Image credit: 01.16 總統主持「新竹空軍基地興安專案新建營舍啟用典禮」 by Wang Yu Ching / Office of the President/Flickr, license CC BY 2.0

On January 11th 2020, the incumbent president of Taiwan, Tsai Ing-Wen, was re-elected to serve a second term as President of Taiwan by a land-slide majority. Tsai’s 8.17 million votes (57.1%) was a record high for Taiwan (well surpassing the record set by Ma Ying-jeou in 2008), and occurred in the backdrop of an unprecedented high turn out (19 million votes at 74.9% of the voting population). Yet the performance in the legislative election of Tsai’s party, the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), was far less impressive than the performance of Tsai in the presidential election. The breakdown of votes in the legislative election, which was held concurrently, shows that only 33.9% of voters voted for Tsai’s Democratic Progressive Party (DPP). This contrast was salient in the cohort of university aged voters, where an extensive survey revealed that more than 85% registered their intention of voting for Tsai, while only a quarter pledged to vote for DPP candidates.  

What explains this discrepancy? One important factor is the gap in voter support for the DPP’s domestic policies, and its foreign policy – the latter of which is often seen as a core prerogative of the president. The DPP suffered a calamitous defeat during the 2018 midterms, due largely to widespread discontent at its pension, labour and wage reform initiatives. However, on the back of the long-running Hong Kong extradition movement in Hong Kong, Tsai brought her firm rebuttal of China’s ‘one country two systems’ model – as well as the dangers Beijing allegedly poses to Taiwan’s democracy and freedoms – to the front and centre of her presidential campaign platform. This strategy was largely successful; surveys consistently showed that voters believed that Tsai was the candidate most capable of defending Taiwan’s sovereignty, and her hardline approach was particularly popular among younger Taiwanese. This strategy’s success was by some measure abetted by Beijing, whose hardline response against the Hong Kong protest movement, and its increasingly aggressive attempts to poach Taiwan’s diplomatic allies, appears to have only strengthened anti-China sentiments on the island.   

With this in mind, we will briefly explore what Tsai’s reelection will likely mean in terms of the direction of Taiwan’s foreign and defence policies during her second presidential term. The focus will be on three core issues: a) Taiwan’s relationship with China, b) its relationship with China’s geostrategic rival and Taiwan’s most important ally, the United States of America, and c) possible developments in Taiwan’s defence policy.  

Say goodbye to the 1992 Consensus

Many analyses of the election have addressed Tsai’s rejection of Beijing’s preferred model for reunification across the Taiwan Strait – the ‘one country two systems’ currently in operation in Hong Kong. Arguably of more import is that Tsai has recently shifted away from recognising a core foundation of the ‘one country’ premise – the so called ‘1992 Concensus.’ 

The term ‘1992 Consensus’ was coined in 2000 by Su Chi, the unification-leaning nationalist KMT politician and former Minister of the Mainland Affairs Council, in order to set the parameters of communication between Beijing and the government of the newly elected independence-leaning former president, the DPP’s Chen Shui-bian. Chen, however, never accepted the veracity of this term during his two tenures because he – along with many DPP supporters and some independent analysts – believed that no ‘consensus’ had actually been reached in the 1992 meeting which is its namesake (an semi-formal meeting held between PRC and ROC representatives in Hong Kong in November of that year). The succeeding Ma Ying-jeou government, nevertheless, used this ‘imagined consensus’ as a foundation for improving cross-strait relations. From 2008 onward, the Ma government and Hu Jintao’s Chinese administration tacitly acknowledged this ‘consensus’ as having been built on two pillars: 1) Taiwan could interpret the 92 Consensus as meaning that there is ‘one China, but two different interpretations [in relation to the identity of its government].’ In this formula, One China meant the Republic of China (ROC) to Taiwan (i.e., the constitutional name of the government currently ruling Taiwan), while for China, it meant the People’s Republic of China (PRC); and 2) China would not publicly denigrate Taiwan’s understanding. By adhering to this ambiguous ‘One China’ framework, Taiwan and China found a basis for sustaining a temporary modus vivendi.

However, since the ascendance of China’s current leader Xi Jinping, China has attempted to gradually narrow Taiwan’s leeway to freely interpret the meaning of ‘one China.’ By Ma’s second term, China tried to force Taiwan to accept a new version of the 92 Consensus—“the 92 Consensus = One China = the PRC.” But this strategy backfired politically. Xi’s perceived slight on Taiwan’s sovereignty was a critical factor behind Ma’s extremely low levels of approval in the last few years of his tenure. Tsai’s tougher line on China helped Tsai secure victory in the 2016 presidential election, and in January 2019, Tsai’s refusal to accomodate Xi’s proposal of a Taiwanese version of the ‘One Country, Two Systems’ helped her bolster support among younger Taiwanese in particular. 

Tsai’s rebuttal against the 92 Consensus has often been ambiguous in order to avoid crossing ‘red lines’ which could provoke more firm forms of retaliation from Beijing – a point that many analysts have neglected. From 2016-18, Tsai never publicly stated that she accepted the 92 Consensus, as China had demanded. However, she did not directly contradict the ‘one country’ premise either, nor did she make statements which were not aligned with the ROC Constitution – which claims that the “Republic of China” extends well beyond that are that the government of Taiwan currently controls. The most obvious evidence of this balancing act is that ‘mainland China’ was the term her government used to refer to the PRC, which suggests that they were willing to work with China under some form of a ‘one China’ framework.

Nevertheless, following China’s aggressive attempts to poach Taiwan’s diplomatic allies, changes in the use of language began to occur – a watershed moment being when China convinced Burkina Faso to abandon its diplomatic recognition of Taiwan in May 2018. Since that time, the terms Tsai used to refer to the PRC changed from “mainland China” to “Beijing authority”, and finally “China” – which implied that Tsai has little interest in continuing negotiations with China under the “one China” framework. It is therefore highly unlikely that Tsai would ever mention (let alone accept) the 92 Consensus in her second term.

Closer US-Taiwan relations

It was in the backdrop of these developments that Taiwan and the US stepped up their cooperation. Since 2018, Tsai’s foreign policy systematically strengthened all aspects of its relations with the US. The passing of the Taiwan Travel Act, sale of F-16V jets, integration of Taiwan into the US’s Indo-Pacific Strategy, and US-Taiwan cyber exercises, all occurred after Burkina Faso’s diplomatic switch.

Many in Taiwan viewed this presidential election as a critical juncture in determining whether Taiwan will embark on a pro-US or pro-China foreign policy course. Given that the Sino-US rivalry over East Asia seems to be growing, and given that Tsai soundly defeated Han Kuo-yu, a pro-Beijing candidate, on an anti-China platform, it is very likely that Tsai will continue strengthening the US-Taiwan relationship in the years to come. Evidence of this strengthened relationship is indeed showing: the Speaker of the United States House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo both immediately sent their congratulations to Tsai after the election – something which high ranking American officials/politicians have not done for decades. 

Internal balancing against China 

This shift in foreign policy is likely to have a profound impact on Taiwan’s defence policy. It is, in fact, difficult to know what Taiwan’s defense policy would have been had Han been elected. During the campaign, Han’s policy included few details and was strategically ambiguous, often involving toning down or outright avoiding the issue of China’s military threat to Taiwan. Han refused to name China as a country that posed a military threat to Taiwan in an interview, as well as in a televised presidential debate. He analogised Tsai’s indigenous submarine development program to a mission of landing on the moon and to building an aircraft carrier, and argued it was impossible to actualize – without proposing any plausible alternatives. In line with this strategy, there was no substantial defense proposal on his official campaign website.

In contrast with Han, the Tsai government – which had already spent a great deal of energy strengthening many aspects of Taiwan’s self-defense capabilities over the course of its last term – well and truly nailed its defence policy-colours to the mast. Its key defence policy platforms included reconceptualising Taiwan’s military doctrine from “effective deterrence” to “multi-domain deterrence,” developing a more self-reliant defense industry, developing military weapons with stronger offensive capabilities, and improving the image of military personnel in Taiwanese society. All of these measures were the extension of an explicit core policy platform – reducing the widening gap between the military capabilities and capacities of Taiwan and China. Concrete benchmarks have been set – the sea trial of Taiwan’s first indigenous submarine is scheduled for 2024, and a series of Hsiung Feng anti-ship missiles will enter mass-production in 2021. With the election victory, Tsai can thus be expected to continue to fortify Taiwan’s military capabilities against China.

Yu-Hua Chen is a visiting fellow at George Washington University. His core areas of expertise are Chinese foreign and security policy, international relations theory, and the history-security nexus in the Asia-Pacific region. He tweets at @YuHuaNealChen


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