Chinese academic: Tsai's true intention was to redraw boundaries in cross-strait relations

Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen’s inauguration speech yesterday delved into various areas concerning the future direction of Taiwan, but the most important aspect was the strong tone she set regarding the handling of cross-straits relations. Chuang Hui Liang and Edwin Ong analyse the nuances of her speech and gather reactions from Taiwan and mainland China.
This handout picture taken and released on 20 May 2020 by the Taiwan Presidential office shows Taiwan's President Tsai Ing-wen (centre) and Vice President William Lai waving during an inauguration event for their respective terms in office, at the Taipei Guest House in Taipei. (Handout/Taiwan Presidential Office/AFP)
This handout picture taken and released on 20 May 2020 by the Taiwan Presidential office shows Taiwan's President Tsai Ing-wen (centre) and Vice President William Lai waving during an inauguration event for their respective terms in office, at the Taipei Guest House in Taipei. (Handout/Taiwan Presidential Office/AFP)

Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen said during her second term inaugural address yesterday (20 May) that “cross-strait relations have reached a historical turning point” and “both sides have a duty to find a way to coexist over the long term and prevent the intensification of antagonism and differences”. She added that she would “hold firm” to her principles and “adopt an open attitude to resolve issues”. She also said, “I also hope that the leader on the other side of the Strait will take on the same responsibility, and work with us to jointly stabilise the long-term development of cross-strait relations.”

Elaborating on Tsai’s stance at a press conference yesterday afternoon, Mainland Affairs Council Minister Chen Ming-tong only said that “history has turned a new page, and there is no need to talk about it anymore”.

Yesterday, Tsai Ing-wen and William Lai Ching-te were sworn in as Taiwan’s 15th president and vice president respectively. After the ceremony, Tsai delivered her inaugural speech at Taipei Guest House. She reiterated the promises she made during her first inaugural speech delivered in 2016 and said that she would continue to handle cross-strait affairs according to the Constitution of the Republic of China and the Act Governing Relations between the People of the Taiwan Area and the Mainland Area.   

Non-mention of “1992 Consensus”

In 2016, she did not acknowledge the “1992 Consensus”, but only expressed that she respected the historical fact of the 1992 meeting between Taiwan’s Straits Exchange Foundation and mainland China’s Association for Relations Across the Taiwan Straits, and the consensus that both sides had different interpretations of the “one China” concept. However, Tsai did not mention anything about the 1992 Consensus yesterday.   

Elaborating on Tsai’s stance at a press conference yesterday afternoon, Mainland Affairs Council Minister Chen Ming-tong only said that “history has turned a new page, and there is no need to talk about it anymore”.   

This handout picture taken and released on 20 May 2020 by the Taiwan Presidential office shows Tsai Ing-wen being sworn in for her second term as Taiwan's President during her inauguration ceremony at the Presidential Office in Taipei. (Handout/Taiwan Presidential Office/AFP)
This handout picture taken and released on 20 May 2020 by the Taiwan Presidential office shows Tsai Ing-wen being sworn in for her second term as Taiwan's President during her inauguration ceremony at the Presidential Office in Taipei. (Handout/Taiwan Presidential Office/AFP)

Amid a wave of anti-China sentiment in Taiwan, Tsai garnered 8.17 million votes at the presidential elections this January. Moreover, with the international community’s praise for its coronavirus response, Tsai delivered her inaugural speech with confidence. She repeatedly spoke about a “Taiwanese community”, thanking the people for patiently waiting in line outside pharmacies in the early days of the outbreak, upholding civic virtues in times of great distress. She also thanked the people who were quarantined or isolated at home for putting up with the inconvenience for the sake of the safety and health of others. She said, “This sense of pride in our country, this community's shared destiny, and the memories of these past months will live on in all of our hearts. This is what solidarity feels like.” 

Cross-straits relations going forward

...she will not “accept the Beijing authorities' use of ‘one country, two systems’ to downgrade Taiwan and undermine the cross-strait status quo”.

Tsai then elaborated on Taiwan’s plans for survival and development in the post-pandemic era, emphasising that only those who “take advantage of opportunities in the complex world of tomorrow will be able to set themselves apart on the international stage”. She promised to leave her people “with a better country” and will reinvent and lead Taiwan into the future by proactively developing Taiwan’s industries, fostering a safe society, ensuring national security, and deepening Taiwan’s democracy.  

Speaking about cross-straits relations, Tsai expressed that they have made the “greatest effort to maintain peace and stability” in the Taiwan Strait over the past four years. She is also willing to engage in more dialogues with China moving forward, and make more concrete contributions to regional security. However, she reiterated the importance of “peace, parity, democracy, and dialogue”, stating that she will not “accept the Beijing authorities' use of ‘one country, two systems’ to downgrade Taiwan and undermine the cross-strait status quo”.   

Speaking about national defence reforms, Tsai said that the first thing is to “accelerate the development of our asymmetrical capabilities”. She added, “While we work to bolster our defence capabilities, future combat capacity development will also emphasise mobility, countermeasures, and non-traditional asymmetrical capabilities.” Taiwan would also work to guard against “the threats of cyber warfare, cognitive warfare, and ‘unrestricted’ warfare”, to achieve its “strategic goal of multi-domain deterrence”.   

Its first priority would be to lower the voting age from 20 to 18, an issue that both the ruling and opposition parties are in agreement with.  

A man watches the live inauguration ceremony of Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen in Taipei, Taiwan, on 20 May 2020. (Ann Wang/Reuters)
A man watches the live inauguration ceremony of Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen in Taipei, Taiwan, on 20 May 2020. (Ann Wang/Reuters)

Tsai also mentioned that the Legislative Yuan will establish a constitutional amendment committee so that the constitutional system can progress with the times and align with the values of Taiwan society. Its first priority would be to lower the voting age from 20 to 18, an issue that both the ruling and opposition parties are in agreement with.  

...the various symbolisms of the “Republic of China” are getting increasingly invisible. - Johnny Chiang, chairman of opposition party Kuomintang   

In response to Tsai’s inaugural speech, former Taiwan President Ma Ying-jeou’s office said that while Tsai hopes to maintain the peace and security of both sides of the Taiwan Strait as much as possible, she did not speak about the 1992 Consensus and was constantly manipulating animosity towards China. Thus, both sides have long lost the basis for dialogue.     

Johnny Chiang, chairman of opposition party Kuomintang (KMT), also said that both the ruling and opposition parties are in agreement with Tsai’s principles of “peace, parity, democracy, and dialogue”, and reject “one country, two systems” as well. However, over the past four years of Tsai’s leadership, cross-strait exchanges have seriously deteriorated. From the looks of yesterday’s speech, no signs of how mutual trust can be rebuilt between both sides can be found as well. Chiang said that the various symbolisms of the “Republic of China” are getting increasingly invisible.       

Johnny Chiang, the newly elected chairman of Taiwan's main opposition Kuomintang, speaks during a news conference in Taipei, Taiwan, on 7 March 2020. (Fabian Hamacher/Reuters)
Johnny Chiang, the newly elected chairman of Taiwan's main opposition Kuomintang, speaks during a news conference in Taipei, Taiwan, on 7 March 2020. (Fabian Hamacher/Reuters)

Following her speech, Tsai returned to the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) to take up its leadership again. She announced three new missions of the DPP, namely inviting activists who can help bring about social changes into the party, providing more opportunities for the younger generation, and cultivating social media talent.

Academics say Tsai is testing mainland China’s bottomline

Tsai’s mention of the establishment of a constitutional amendment committee within the Legislative Yuan has external parties worried over the possibility that Taiwan is on the path towards jurisprudence for “Taiwan independence”.

Speaking at the press conference yesterday, Mainland Affairs Council Deputy Minister Chiu Chui-cheng said that while this is within the authority of the Legislative Yuan, constitutional amendments are highly complex and sensitive issues. A national consensus has to be reached, coupled with considerations for international factors as well.  

A coalition of pro-independence groups such as Taiwan Citizen Front (台湾公民阵线) and Economic Democracy Union (经济民主连合) released a statement yesterday urging Tsai to shoulder her historic responsibility of consolidating the will and aspirations of the Taiwanese in writing a new constitution self-determined by the people.   

Protesters calling for Taiwan independence hold banners in front of Democratic Progressive Party in Taipei, Taiwan, on 20 May 2020. (Ann Wang/Reuters)
Protesters calling for Taiwan independence hold banners in front of Democratic Progressive Party in Taipei, Taiwan, on 20 May 2020. (Ann Wang/Reuters)

Professor Shih Cheng-feng of National Dong Hwa University’s Department of Indigenous Affairs and Development told Zaobao that DPP legislator Tsai Yi-yu had previously proposed the removal of the words “unification of the nation” from the Constitution, hoping to lure the KMT into challenging his proposal. However, KMT did not fall into his trap, and Tsai Yi-yu had to retract the proposal himself.   

Tang Shao-cheng, researcher at National Chengchi University’s Institute of International Relations, told us that Tsai’s inaugural speech made no real progress — it was not provocative but also did not give mainland China a chance to retaliate. However, Tang said that it “constantly tested the mainland’s ‘bottom line’”, and is making “larger steps in overstepping China’s ‘red line’”.    

Taiwan Affairs Office criticises Tsai for not recognising 1992 consensus

During her inauguration speech, President Tsai Ing-wen did not mention the 1992 Consensus. Mainland China’s Taiwan Affairs Office of the State Council criticised the DPP government for not recognising the 1992 Consensus and seriously threatening cross-strait peace and stability. But academics from mainland China noted that Tsai did not openly object to the 1992 Consensus, which was a better outcome than expected. 

While her comments on cross-strait relations were gentle, the true intention was to redraw boundaries in cross-strait relations. - Professor Zhu Feng, dean of the School of International Relations at Nanjing University

According to Xinhua, Taiwan Affairs Office spokesperson Ma Xiaoguang said the DPP government refused to recognise the 1992 Consensus, and thus was unilaterally undermining the political foundation for the peaceful development of cross-strait relations. He stressed that reunification cannot be stopped by anyone or any force, while Taiwan independence goes against the tide of the times and is a path to nowhere, and mainland China will “definitely not leave any room for separatist activities aimed at Taiwan independence in any form”.

ma xiaoguang
Taiwan Affairs Office spokesperson Ma Xiaoguang. (Internet)

“not daring to provoke, and not willing to engage” - Chu Yin, research fellow at the Center for China and Globalization

Professor Zhu Feng, dean of the School of International Relations at Nanjing University, told Zaobao yesterday that mainland China is probably very disappointed at Tsai’s speech. While her comments on cross-strait relations were gentle, the true intention was to redraw boundaries in cross-strait relations. Even as Tsai mentioned restarting cross-strait talks on the basis of "peace, parity, democracy, and dialogue", Prof Zhu felt this was defining mainland China and Taiwan as two equal sovereign states and political entities, and “from now on, dialogue has to be carried out on terms of parity”.

Chu Yin, a research fellow at the Center for China and Globalization, described Tsai’s latest comments as “not daring to provoke, and not willing to engage”. He said Tsai does not want to be seen as weak by the pro-independence camp, but does not dare to provoke mainland China, and so did not even mention the 1992 Consensus. But this also prevented the worst-case scenario of Tsai publicly opposing it and leading to an open rift across the straits.

As for Tsai’s announcement that the Legislative Yuan will establish a constitutional amendment committee, Prof Zhu said the intention is to show that Tsai can cater to the pro-independence camp within the DPP, and may push for a legal basis for independence for Taiwan, introducing a major element of uncertainty for future cross-strait relations.

Academics from mainland China said the response from the Defence Ministry was particularly rare, and all three organisations speaking up at once is a very strong signal intended to warn the US that Taiwan is not a bargaining chip in China-US relations.

While there will not be a breakthrough in cross-strait relations in the short term, Prof Zhu is cautiously optimistic as he says that as long as the Tsai administration does not push mainland China into a corner, there is still a chance for the situation over the next four years to improve and stabilise.

Pompeo releases congratulatory note, mainland China alleges interference

The day before Tsai’s inauguration, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo heightened tensions between mainland China and the US by releasing a congratulatory note to Tsai. Mainland China's Ministry of Defence, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and Taiwan Affairs Office all released statements criticising Pompeo’s comments as interfering with China’s domestic affairs.

Academics from mainland China said the response from the Defence Ministry was particularly rare, and all three organisations speaking up at once is a very strong signal intended to warn the US that Taiwan is not a bargaining chip in China-US relations.

Analysts feel that the rare statement by mainland China’s Defence Ministry shows its right to speak on cross-strait issues, and that the People’s Liberation Army is preparing for war.

Pompeo released congratulatory messages to Tsai on both the US Department of State website as well as his personal Twitter, the first such move by a sitting US secretary of state.

pompeo
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo speaks the press at the State Department in Washington, DC, 20 May 2020. (Nicholas Kamm/AFP)

Prof Zhu of Nanjing University said Pompeo has completely dropped all cordiality with Beijing in terms of policies toward China, and is treading on China’s bottomline of the one-China policy. Prof Zhu said the mainland China Defence Ministry’s response was very rare, and having all three organisations taking aim at Pompeo is a strong warning to the Trump administration that if the US continues to veer away from the one-China policy, China will fight to the end.

Analysts feel that the rare statement by mainland China’s Defence Ministry shows its right to speak on cross-strait issues, and that the People’s Liberation Army is preparing for war.

It (the Defence Ministry) reiterated that the PLA has the strong will, full confidence and sufficient capability to thwart any form of external interference and any separatist attempts for “Taiwan independence”, and would take all necessary measures to firmly safeguard China's sovereignty and territorial integrity.

Researcher Chu Yin of the Center for China and Globalization said the comment by mainland China’s Foreign Ministry about “countermeasures” against the US is a strong warning. The strong comments by the three organisations are meant to “dispel any ideas the US might have of manipulating US-Taiwan relations as a bargaining chip in China-US relations."

Defence Ministry says futile to try to contain China using Taiwan

Mainland China’s Defence Ministry issued a written statement to express strong dissatisfaction and firm opposition to US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s congratulating Taiwan leader Tsai Ing-wen on her inauguration, noting that it seriously interferes in China's internal affairs, seriously jeopardises the development of relations between the two countries and the two militaries, and seriously undermines the peace and stability across the Taiwan Straits. It warned that doing so was wrong and dangerous.

The Defence Ministry also warned: “There is no way out to bank on foreign forces to build themselves up, and it is doomed to be futile to contain China with Taiwan. The ‘Taiwan independence’ secessionist forces and their acts... will leave behind historical imprints of notoriety.” It reiterated that the PLA has the strong will, full confidence and sufficient capability to thwart any form of external interference and any separatist attempts for “Taiwan independence”, and would take all necessary measures to firmly safeguard China's sovereignty and territorial integrity.

Foreign Ministry notes serious violation of one-China principle

Mainland China’s Foreign Ministry also issued a statement criticising Pompeo calling Tsai “President”, and boasting about the "partnership" between the US and Taiwan, and saying that some other US officials and politicians also sent congratulatory videos to Tsai. The Foreign Ministry deplored and condemned such moves which it felt were in serious violation of the one-China principle and the three China-US joint communiqués, and constituted grave interference in China's internal affairs.

foreign ministry
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian attends a news conference in Beijing, 8 April 2020. Zhao reiterated the Foreign Ministry's stand at a regular press briefing on 20 May 2020. (Carlos Garcia Rawlins/REUTERS)

The Foreign Ministry warned the US: “‘Taiwan independence’ will only lead to a dead-end, and attempts to condone and support ‘Taiwan independence’ are doomed to fail. Practices that undermine China's core interests and intervene in China's domestic affairs will be met with forceful fightback, which will not to the slightest extent impede the historical trend of China's reunification.”

The Foreign Ministry also said China will take necessary measures in response to the US erroneous practices, and the consequences will be borne by the US, without providing details.

Taiwan Affairs Office tells US to abide by principles of international relations

In response to queries, Taiwan Affairs Office spokesperson Ma Xiaoguang urged the US to abide by the basic principles of international relations, and stop any official dealings with Taiwan. He said mainland China will take all necessary measures to safeguard China's sovereignty and territorial integrity, and continue to push for unification.

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