Written by Chieh-chi Hsieh.
Since the outbreak of COVID-19, President Tsai Ing-wen has been able to obtain and continue to sustain high supporting rates mainly due to the many successful policy measures put forward to contain the negative impacts of the pandemic. The first opinion poll conducted after Tsai commenced her second-term of presidency in May showed her reaching a record-high of 71.2 per cent of supporting rate. Although there have been changes to Tsai’s support rate in following months, including a 10.5 per cent drop to 61 per cent in June, she is still able to sustain a high popularity rate of 65.8 per cent according to an August survey.
In addition, one of the most prominent factors that has contributed to Tsai’s popularity/approval rates is the numerous diplomatic breakthrough she has achieved since April. Notably, the official visits of United States (US) Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar in August, followed by Czech Senator President Miloš Vystrčil and his 89-delegation, to the most recent visit of US Under Secretary of State Keith Krach in September. These are all critical milestones for Taiwan’s diplomatic relations. Nevertheless, with the adverse health effects of COVID-19 gradually diminishing in Taiwan, and therefore, less felt amongst Taiwan’s residents, the question is whether the stakes are too high for Tsai’s government to continue to gamble on diplomatic breakthroughs to sustain her popularity? This approach not only bears significant implications for the continuation of the Democratic Progressive Party’s (DPP) governance in 2022 local elections and 2024 presidential election but also will determine the trajectory of cross-strait relations in the coming years.
Tsai and the DPP’s Navigation of Deteriorating Cross-Strait Relations
There are several reasons why Tsai has gained the upper hand in shaping Cross-Strait relations at the expense of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and may continue to do so. The most evident factor is Taiwan’s most important ally, the United States (US) under President Trump, has altered its foreign policy orientation from viewing China as a strategic “partner” to a strategic “competitor”. Hence we have witnessed a rather hawkish iteration of the US government’s “congagement” policy compared to previous administrations in the Oval Office. Taiwan-US relations have progressed from the relying on the strategic ambiguities of 1979 Taiwan Relation Act and the informal foreign principles of the 1982 “Six Assurances,” to the strategic clarities of the 2018 Taiwan Travel Act and the 2020 Taipei Act. It is due to the gradual strategic clarity of US foreign policy towards Taiwan that permitted the recent visits of Secretary Azar and Under Secretary Krach the past months, not vice versa. Other countries, such as Germany, France, and Australia, have gradually tweaked their respective methods of engagement with China. COVID-19 was merely a catalyst that made these development surface. Nevertheless, the US government’s change of foreign policy orientation along with the perception change of European and Indo-Pacific governments toward China, in my opinion, is not the most prominent factor.
The most crucial factor that has allowed Tsai to prevail over the CCP in determining the trajectory of cross-strait relations is her backing from Taiwan’s general public of Taiwan. We have to keep in mind that although Tsai also defeated the 2016 Kuomintang (KMT) presidential candidate Eric Chou by a significant margin of almost 310 million ballots, residents that favoured ‘maintaining status quo [moving] toward unification’ actually witnessed an upward spiral development from 8.5 per cent in 2016 to 12.8 per cent in 2018. Concurrently, those who favoured ‘maintaining status quo [moving] toward independence’ dropped from 18.3 per cent to 15.7 per cent in the same period.
Since Xi Jin-ping debunked the KMT’s 1992 consensus during his 2019 new year speech, the CCP and KMT’s fortune have changed. For instance, the same survey conducted by the National Chengchi University Election Study Centre shows that those who preferred moving towards independence surged to 21.8 per cent in 2019. In contrast, those who preferred gradually moving towards unification dropped to 7.5 per cent in the same year. The COVID-19 pandemic and a series of miscalculated policy decisions of Xi and his CCP have only enhanced the development. The ratio of residents that prefer gradually moving towards independence raised to 27.7 per cent in 2020. This is the highest number since the annual survey was first conducted in 1994. Due to its ‘China-friendly’ stance, the KMT was considered collateral damage in this process. In May, an opinion poll released by the Taiwan Brain Trust showed that the KMT support rate was reduced to a small figure of 9.2 per cent. Similar results were shown in the survey announced by KMT’s research wing, National Policy Foundation, which indicated KMT’s support rate at 13.7 per cent vis-á-vis DPP’s 32.9 per cent. Although the KMT is the largest opposition party in the country – holding 38 seats in the Legislative Yuan – it simply has little firepower to challenge the DPP. Tsai and the DPP thus seem invincible.
The DPP Government’s Gamble
In my opinion, the greatest asset that Tsai and the DPP government currently possess is high levels of public trust. Although recent domestic events have blemished DPP’s reputation, these backlashes have been offset by a series of Taiwan diplomatic breakthroughs.
In late July, prosecutors listed five current and former legislators as suspects in the corruption probe associated with the takeover dispute of Far Eastern Group and the Pacific Sogo Department Store. Although two of the four prosecuted individuals were KMT legislators — and given that the prosecuted DPP legislator Su Chen-ching not only received the highest amount of illicit funds but also that his uncle Presidential Office Secretary-General Su Jia-chyuan was one of the closest allies of Tsai (i.e. Tsai’s vice president candidate in 2012) — the corruption scandal imposed a more severe impact on the DPP than the KMT. Nevertheless, Secretary Azar’s official visit early August offset this impact. Another diplomatic breakthrough that saved, at least temporarily, the DPP’s neck was Senator President Vystrči’s official visit from late August to early September. Tsai’s decision to announce easing restrictions on the import of US pork containing ractopamine, along with beef over 30 months old, just three days prior to Vystrči’s well-celebrated “I am Taiwanese” speech is a precise instance of deploying such tactics.
The recent successes Taiwan has achieved in diplomacy has led to some alarming actions of the DPP. For instance, earlier this month, DPP legislator Wang Ting-yu — who stands in the Foreign National Defense Committee, along with 30 legislators — proposed to amend Taiwan’s National Security Act. They wanted to include a fine to penalise Taiwan residents that wave China’s national flag in public areas in the country. Wang stated that the amendment was to retaliate against the CCP’s policy for not allowing the display of Taiwan’s national flag in China. Hence, the policy proposition was put forward in the wake of the controversial issue involving several Taiwanese celebrities partaking in China’s national day celebration event in China and Taiwan on the 1 October. Wang’s reasoning is not only absurd, but it also goes against the fundamental values that differentiate Taiwan and China: freedom and democracy.
The DPP government’s emphasis on its diplomatic achievements may also risk falling short of expectations. Recently, issues such as changing the prefix of Taiwan’s representatives to ambassadors in the US, Japan and Germany have been publicised and over-inflated by pan-green media outlets (e.g. Formosa TV). Moreover, certain DPP legislators have exaggerated its political significance. Despite the insignificance of these unofficial changes compared to the official name change of Taiwan’s embassy (e.g. the US), this still prompted Primer Su Tseng-chang to warmly welcome these so-called “progresses.” Although Taiwan’s international presence is set to improve with the support of like-minded allies, it is unlikely to witness drastic changes in the near term. Taiwan’s bid for membership in the United Nations would unlikely materialise in the next years, and anything below obtaining permanent observer status in the World Health Assembly would not meet the expectations of the general public.
As shown in the latest public opinion survey in September, Tsai’s popularity rate witnessed an 11 per cent drop to 55.1 per cent, which is the lowest ratio since November 2019. This is attributed to the widely perceived abrupt decision to loosen regulations on US pork and beef imports in the absence of sufficient communication with the public. This acts as a reminder to Tsai’s government that it is risky business to utilise diplomatic breakthroughs as a means to offset domestic political issues.
To continue to prevail over China in shaping the trajectory of cross-strait relations, Tsai and her government need to maintain their postures and adopt a low-profile approach to consolidate Taiwan’s diplomatic ties. There are instances that Tsai’s government is heading towards this direction. For instance, in a recent interview with the National Public Radio, Taiwan’s Foreign Minister Joseph Wu stated that “Taiwan is not pursuing formal diplomatic ties with the [US] for now.” Wu’s statement seemed contradictory to Tsai’s long endeavour to strengthen Taiwan-US relations further. Moreover, the timing of the interview is also intriguing given that US Congressman Tom Tiffany has just introduced a bill urging the US to resume formal diplomatic relations with Taiwan on 16 September. Unsurprisingly, this prompted the KMT to scrutinise the DPP government’s overall foreign policy strategy and questioned whether normalising diplomatic relations with the US is considered an attainable foreign policy objective within Wu’s tenure.
As much as it seems counter-intuitive, it does demonstrate that Tsai and her government remain pragmatic when ensuring Taiwan consolidates its relationship with the US amid heightened tensions between the US and China. This provides Tsai sufficient discretion in avoiding being pressured into any undesirable confrontation (i.e. military) with the CCP before the US Presidential Election. It also gives ample flexibility to continue fostering Taiwan-US relationship if Biden defeats Trump this November. Most importantly, it would demonstrate Tsai’s consistency in not initiating any changes to the status quo. This is a statement she underscored during an interview with the BBC after securing her second presidential term this January. Once again, this would reassure the US government that the DPP government led by Tsai is a trustworthy counterpart, unlike the previous DPP government under Chen Shui Bian. For Taiwan, the country would continue to stand on a moral high ground vis-à-vis China when future opportunities arises that permits Taiwan’s regular participation in international/regional organisations (e.g. WHA this November).
Chieh-chi Hsieh received his PhD from the Department of Politics and International Studies, University of Warwick (UK). He also holds an MSc degree in International Political Economy at the Department of International Relations, London School of Economics and Political Science. You can follow him on twitter @DrHsiehCC