Taiwan presidential race: Are Tsai’s independence ideals restrained by unification pressure?
By Hong Xincheng
Recent reports by the United Daily News say that mainland China is politically prepared for opposition Progressive Party (DPP) candidate Tsai Ing-wen to win Taiwan’s upcoming presidential election. Many are worried that cross-strait relations will return to the tension of the Lee Teng-hui and Chen Shui-bian periods if Tsai doesn’t acknowledge the “1992 Consensus,” which put forward the idea of “one China, two interpretations.”
Currently, the “Republic of China” card and the fairly vague discourse that surrounds it has given Tsai some room to maneuver.
The “unification vs. independence” survey conducted last month by the Academia Sinica provides some insight on this matter. When Taiwanese were asked “their wishes for unification or independence at the moment,” 46.4% chose “independence.” When asked “the trend toward unification or independence in the foreseeable future,” however, 49.7% felt that Taiwan would “become reunified” with the mainland. This gap between the people’s desires and forecasts shows an “ideal of independence” but a “trend toward ultimate unification.”
Tsai Ing-wen’s current logic
Is Tsai, the leading candidate in current polls, a supporter of independence in theory who cannot rule out the prospect of unification? Though we cannot know her innermost thoughts, the candidate most likely to become Taiwan’s next president must take popular opinions on unification and independence seriously.
In previous political forums and televised debates, Tsai reaffirmed that she would “pursue the Republic of China’s current system of constitutional government.” When questioned by KMT candidate Eric Chu, she replied based on “the fact that the history of the 1992 cross-strait discussion has not been rejected.”
It is clear that Tsai is maintaining a safe distance from the issue of the 1992 Consensus and the idea of “one China,” as shown by her careful rhetoric. To say that Tsai is not willing to face reality or that her current rhetoric is designed solely to gain votes is to be simplistic.
The original ideals that go into campaign rhetoric cannot be ignored. Tsai, who has repeatedly emphasized “integrity,” has also expressed the long-term need to take public opinion into consideration. Fortunately, popular opinion supports her declaration of “not easily making promises, but being sure to keep them.” On one hand this reflects a desire to pursue a stable path; on the other it reflects a hope that more roads will open up in the future.
Taiwan’s real situation
Current realities are such that the flip side of becoming closer to China is becoming closer to the United States and Japan, thus using outside forces to achieve a balance of power in the Taiwan Strait. But would Tsai, or even the Taiwanese populace, be willing to take this risk? The answer can be inferred from existing surveys which show the great limits “risk of war” places on “desires for independence.” The Academia Sinica’s recent survey results on “expectations of unification” also shows Taiwanese people’s considerations for cross-strait peace.
Tsai’s new “Go South” policy calls for developing relations with Southeast Asian nations and India as well as strengthening partnerships with the United States and Japan. Is this Taiwan’s way out? If Taiwan treads on territory that overlaps with mainland China’s interests, would China not try to contain Taiwan? If the situation gets that far, would ASEAN, India, or even the United States sacrifice their relations with mainland China?
Even the outspoken United States may avoid pushing China to its tipping point. This would be against its long-standing policy of “maintaining peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait.” This is a point President Obama restated not long ago in a joint press conference with President Xi.
An inevitable challenge
Thus far, Taiwanese voters have been fairly rational and stable, but Tsai Ing-wen would be caught between ideals and reality just like the respondents in the unification vs. independence survey. If she cannot answer to the mainland’s demands after taking office, the mainland will respond in kind. If pressure builds within factions in her party or among the Taiwanese people, internal and external issues may flare up together.
If Tsai is ultimately not able to maintain cross-strait peace and stability, will public opinion turn against her?
At that point, Taiwan will be faced with a gulf between ideals and reality even wider than the one it faces now. The decision of what path to take is a challenge Taiwan cannot avoid.
This article was first published in Chinese on Jan. 5, 2016 by The Initium Media, a Hong Kong-based digital media company. Asia Times has translated it with permission with editing for brevity and clarity.
Translated for Asia Times by Mengxi Seeley