How long more can Tsai Ing-wen avoid the cross-strait issue?

As the Taiwan election approaches, incumbent president Tsai Ing-wen has managed to improve her standing with voters, amid a challenge from Kuomintang candidate Han Kuo-yu. However, one of the issues that Ms Tsai has to address is cross-strait ties with mainland China. How will Ms Tsai show goodwill towards the mainland, while keeping the people of Taiwan happy?
A Taiwanese flag is seen as people attend a rally to mark Taiwan's Double Ten Day. (Philip Fong/AFP)
A Taiwanese flag is seen as people attend a rally to mark Taiwan's Double Ten Day. (Philip Fong/AFP)

As the Taiwan presidential election approaches, the pro-unification blue and pro-independence green camps are locked in close combat. Current public polls indicate that incumbent president Tsai Ing-wen actually has a good chance of defeating Kuomintang opponent Han Kuo-yu on 11 January 2020. If Tsai can turn the tables for the ruling party and win a second term, all eyes will be on cross-strait relations in the next four years.

Going by recent developments, cross-strait relations do not look good. In January this year, Ms Tsai rejected Chinese President Xi Jinping's stance on cross-strait developments, stating her administration's non-acceptance of the “1992 Consensus” as Beijing interprets it as meaning “one China” and "one country, two systems” rather than maintaining the status quo between China and Taiwan. Her standpoint crushed the political foundation built on years of cross-strait dialogue. Since then, cross-strait relations have rapidly deteriorated.

A pro-Green academic said to me, “At most, we break a few more diplomatic ties. How bad can it be? War? Impossible.”

Since the middle of this year, the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) government has frequently commented on the spiralling Hong Kong protests, and fuelled the fire on cross-strait relations. Fresh from amending the National Security Act, Ms Tsai now wants to enact a law against “Chinese Communist Party (CCP) agents”, causing much anxiety among Taiwanese business people based in mainland China, and possibly straining cross-straits ties to an unprecedented level.

The DPP’s stoking of cross-strait hostilities has an element of election engineering, but the aftereffects may continue beyond the election. If Ms Tsai does not change her tactics, cross-strait relations will only deteriorate if she is re-elected, and the DPP seems prepared to sever ties with mainland China. In fact, many in the green camp blame mainland China for shutting the door on dialogue and stirring up trouble, while Taiwan has been responding passively. And although Ms Tsai has rejected the "1992 Consensus" — described by Mr Xi as the supreme anchor (定海神针) — there have not been any tectonic shifts in cross-strait relations, as some in the blue camp has been worried about. A pro-Green academic said to me, “At most, we break a few more diplomatic ties. How bad can it be? War? Impossible.”

tsai ing wen
Taiwan's President Tsai Ing-wen speaks at a dug-out cave auditorium during a ceremony commemorating the 70th anniversary of the battle of Guningtou in Kinmen on October 23, 2019. (Sean Chang/AFP)

While the DPP does not think cross-strait relations will get worse, a huge impact will be felt if relations do regress, and the ones to suffer most will be the people of Taiwan. Take tourism for example, mainland China's restrictions on Taiwan travel imposed three months ago, is gradually showing its effects. According to Taiwan’s official figures, in September this year, only 65,919 mainland Chinese went to Taiwan, which is a 70% drop from August. Going by this trend, Taiwan’s tourism numbers may show an unwonted drop, breaking the growth of the past 15 years.

Since taking office in 2016, Ms Tsai has pushed strongly for a New Southbound Policy (NSP, 新南向政策), which has greatly boosted the number of Southeast Asian visitors to Taiwan. However, this has not buffered the impact of the drop in mainland Chinese tourists. Furthermore, those in Taiwan’s tourism industry have long depended on the mainland China market and have not promptly adjusted their operations. As a result, many coach operators, guest houses, hotels and eateries have frozen up. The DPP is of course keenly aware of the necessity of mainland China to Taiwan’s tourism industry, or it would not have issued billions of dollars worth of night market spending vouchers, or come up with a domestic tourism subsidy.

night market
Night markets are popular among tourists in Taipei. Taiwan is feeling the effects of restrictions by mainland China on travel to Taiwan. (iStock)

Although the NSP aims to reduce Taiwan’s dependence on trade with mainland China, after three years, that dependence has actually grown worse; while Taiwan’s exports to the other 18 NSP countries has declined. Also, after announcing 31 measures to benefit Taiwan last year, Beijing announced another 26 such measures on 4 November this year to further woo Taiwan’s businesses and young people. Reluctant as the DPP may be, the close ties in trade and industry between both sides cannot be severed.

In the face of diplomatic pressure from mainland China, Ms Tsai advocates globalisation. However, without the support of good cross-strait relations, it is not easy for Taiwan to act. Taiwan has been left out of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) for which text-based negotiations were completed on 4 November in Bangkok. Its traditional industries such as machinery and steel structures may be affected or to consider relocation.

As for the Japan-led Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) that the DPP government has been trying hard to join, there has been no significant progress, despite the Twitter dialogue between Ms Tsai and Japanese prime minister Shinzō Abe, and despite Taiwanese foreign minister Joseph Wu calling the Japanese representative in Taiwan “most respected elder brother” (最敬爱的大哥哥). In the end, Taiwan cannot disregard the correlation between cross-strait relations and regional economic integration.

... For dialogue to take place, hostilities must go in order to build friendship and trust. The “CCP agent” amendment is not urgent, and deferring it would be a good opportunity for the DPP government to show that it is not hostile.

Admittedly, from East Asia to the Indo-Pacific and even to Europe, many countries are wary of mainland China’s ambition and aggressive rise, and Taiwan has benefited from that. Taiwan-US ties have warmed up — US Congress has passed many bills that are friendly to Taiwan, while military sales are larger and more frequent, and at least some business has been diverted to Taiwan due to the China-US trade war. But no matter the issues these countries have with mainland China, they have not given up on dialogue and trade, and Taiwan has even less reason to do so.

For dialogue to take place, hostilities must go in order to build friendship and trust. The “CCP agent” amendment is not urgent, and deferring it would be a good opportunity for the DPP government to show that it is not hostile. For the 2000 elections, the DPP passed the Resolution on Taiwan’s Future (台湾前途决议文); to win in 2016, Ms Tsai proposed maintaining the status quo, and after getting elected, stated that cross-strait issues would be handled according to the Republic of China Constitution (中华民国宪法) and the Act Governing Relations between the People of the Taiwan Area and the Mainland Area (两岸关系人民条例). The DPP and Ms Tsai still have time to think carefully about what kind of friendly overtures to extend for 2020.