Expect More China-Taiwan Tensions

With newly-sworn Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen wriggling around a Beijing demand that she verbally acknowledge the “1992 Consensus,” a cryptic version of the One China principle agreed by her China-friendly Kuomintang predecessors, China is likely to wage a four-year campaign to convince the island of the folly of voting for the mainland-wary Democratic Progressive Party (DPP).

There will be no honeymoon. The government faces multiple challenges, many emanating from China. There have been military exercises in the South China Sea as a warning to the Tsai regime to abide by the 1992 Consensus. There undoubtedly will be additional indirect military pressure on Taiwan’s 23.4 million people and the government – although military action is unlikely –while Beijing continues to concentrate on united-front work in order to rally more segments of Taiwanese society, including those dissatisfied with the DPP or with a vested interest in doing more business with China. Beijing has already sought to bring Taiwan back into line by cutting tourism numbers and making it more difficult for Taiwanese to do business on the mainland.

It is likely to be a futile strategy, if the past is any prologue. Young Taiwanese have increasingly resisted Beijing’s blandishments, with antipathy to the mainland playing a major role in Tsai’s solid 56 percent majority win over two opposing candidates in the January 2016 general election.

In her inaugural address on May 20, the scrappy 60-year-old former law professor concentrated on a center-left agenda focusing on the concerns of the younger generations and the need to put history aside by launching a truth and conciliation process in order to heal the wounds of Taiwan’s autocratic past.

China’s President Xi Jinping earlier upped the ante by proclaiming that “the earth will move and the mountains will shake” if the 1992 Consensus was is not accepted. But Tsai didn’t do him the favor mentioning it by name, let alone acknowledge that there is “One China.” Instead, she said, Taiwan and China in 1992 only “agreed to set aside differences to seek common ground.” She indirectly gave something of a nod to a blurry version of One China, referring to the existing Republic of China's constitutional order as well as Taiwan’s “Act on the relations between peoples of both sides of the Strait,” a hint to her adherence to the idea that the ROC includes both Taiwan and mainland China.

“Great speech, quite different from Chen Shui-bian’s [who as Taiwan’s first DPP president governed from 2000-2008], as she did not say anything negative, such as no future for One China,” noted Jean-Pierre Cabestan, Professor and head of the Department of Government and International Studies at Hong Kong Baptist University, in an interview with Asia Sentinel. “But it won’t be enough for China since she did neither mention ‘One China’ nor the ‘1992 Consensus.’”

Cabestan’s predictions are downbeat. He believes that Beijing will now go about downgrading meetings between China’s and Taiwan’s bodies for cross-straits negations (ARATS and SEF respectively); narrow Taiwan international space; and continue reducing the number of Chinese tourists visiting Taiwan. But at the same time, Cabestan said, Beijing will not cut all links with Taiwan because it wants Taiwan to become more dependent on China and not the opposite, given that it wants to lay the ground for a return of the KMT to power.

Not just one dimension

Steve Tsang, director of the University of Nottingham’s China Policy Institute, concurred that the relationship across the Strait is likely to get more tense than in the last eight years when Taiwan was governed by the KMT and that “Beijing will not do anything to help Tsai succeed as president.” He argued that this doesn’t necessarily mean that she will fail and that although pressure by Beijing will pose real problems for Tsai, cross-strait relations are only one dimension and not the most important dimension of the presidency in Taiwan.

“Her success or failure will be measured first and foremost by the aspirations and commitments she has made to the domestic audience – can she rebalance the economy?” Tsang asked. “Can she deliver generational justice and whatever it takes to get the younger generations in Taiwan to feel that they are not being left out and left behind? Can the truth and reconciliation process heal the wounds and build up a one nation framework for moving Taiwan forward?”

Taiwan’s midterm elections will be held in the fall of 2018, when all local governments on the island are elected in one go. Until then, Tsai will have to deal with a job market and wage levels suffering from decreased exports of goods and services as China puts the brakes on both imports from Taiwan and Taiwan-bound tourism. She will also have to deal with Taiwan’s army of homeowners fretting about her core promise of providing much more affordable housing for the young generation.

She can be expected to make Taiwan’s thousands of pig farmers her enemies by allowing the import of US pork containing the controversial lean-meat enhancer ractomine because that’s what will be needed to get some US support for her strategic Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) bid. And more political capital will be lost by dealing with ultra-low electricity rates to satisfy her other core pledge of making earthquake-prone Taiwan nuclear-power free in just nine years from now. The outgoing KMT government in its last month in office cut power rates by 9.6 percent, by far the steepest rate cut in Taiwan ever.