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Cross-Strait Relations

By Dandan Wan

10 January 2018

Tensions across the Taiwan Straits have increased since Tsai Ing-wen, the leader of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), won the presidential election in May 2016.

Instead of acknowledging the “1992 Consensus” explicitly, she referred ambiguously to “the fact of the 1992 talks”[1], which triggered Beijing’s suspicion of her pro-independence stance. The “1992 consensus” is generally viewed as “One China, Respective Interpretation.” Under this formula, both Mainland China and Taiwan acknowledge that they belong to one China but they can keep to their own interpretation of what exactly “China” means. It was considered as the premise for the two sides to conduct dialogue by Mainland China.

Due to Tsai’s unwillingness to specifically acknowledge the “1992 Consensus”, Cross-Strait relations have been at their lowest point in years. After the DPP victory, high-level bilateral connects were cut off by Beijing and economic and foreign pressure exerted on Taiwan. There has been a sharp decline in Chinese group tourism - 27% since the election.[2] International bodies such as the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), the World Health Organization and the International Labour Organization did not invite Taiwan to major meetings. In June 2017, Panama broke with Taiwan and established diplomatic ties with China, leaving Taiwan with only 20 small, diplomatic allies.


President Xi’s statements on Taiwan


Under the changed circumstance, President Xi’s remarks on Taiwan at the 19th Party Congress were watched closely for an indication of any change in Beijing’s Taiwan policy. There had been speculation that Xi would announce a tougher approach but overall his remarks were interpreted as continuity of current policy. He just reiterated what existed already such as “One Country, Two Systems,” “peaceful reunification” and the recognition of the “1992 Consensus” as the core principle, resolute opposition to Taiwan independence in any form, restatement of conditions for the non-peaceful management of Taiwan independence, and willingness to have dialogue with any political party that adheres to the “One China” principle.[3] Although there were some strong warnings such as “We have the resolve, confidence and ability to defeat separatist attempts for ‘Taiwan independence’ in any form. We will never allow anyone, any organization, or any political party, at any time or in any form, to separate any part of Chinese territory from China”[4], they were based on the Anti-Secession Law legislated in 2005 and a continuity of China’s Taiwan policy as stated in the former Party Congresses.


However, there was something new. Unlike previous Party reports,[5], Xi did not repeat the commitment to “place hopes on the Taiwan people as a force to help bring about unification.” [6]  Whether Beijing take into account the opinion of the 23 million Taiwan people when pursuing its goals in future remains unknown. But the deletion of the commitment did show that Beijing might be aware that it is increasingly difficult to win the hearts of the Taiwanese population. The Sunflower Student Movement in 2014 and the election of the pro-independence Tsai in 2016 are evidence of this situation.


Taiwan attitudes towards Mainland China


Although having experienced a honeymoon of unprecedented peace, stability and economic prosperity under former leader of Kuomintang (KMT) Ma Ying-jeou (2008-2016), it is clear that Beijing failed to attract Taiwan people and bring them closer. This was shown not only by the humiliating defeat of the relatively pro-China party KMT in the 2016 presidential elections but also by several large-scale protests against Beijing.


In 2008 when Ma took into office, Beijing welcomed him due to his firm endorsement of the “1992 Consensus” and the “Three-Noes” policy - No Unification, No Independence, and No Use of Military Force, marking an end to the frozen cross-strait relations under Ma’s predecessor, the pro-independence leader Chen Shui-bian of the DPP.


Despite Ma Ying-jeou’s policy of pro-engagement under which a total of more than 20 agreements were negotiated, it did not bring the Taiwanese people closer to Mainland China. Although economic ties increased, Taiwan citizens became even more skeptical of the deepening economic interaction for fear of increasing Taiwan’s economic vulnerability. Beijing’s significant concessions were perceived as sugarcoated means to achieve unification, which led to the Sunflower Student Movement during the presidency of Ma.


In 2014, more than 100,000 Taiwanese protested against the Cross-Straits Service Trade Agreement. Fearing increasing economic dependence on China they chanted “defend democracy, withdraw the trade deal”.[7] In September 2017, a musical festival “Sing! China”, cosponsored by the cities of Taipei and Shanghai was called off following the students and pro-independence groups taking over the stage chanting: “We are the National Taiwan University, not the China Taiwan University!”[8] All these protests helped Beijing to realize the difficulty of winning the support of the Taiwanese people.


Understanding the political position of the Taiwanese people is also essential in navigating the delicate cross-straits relationship. The results of a poll by the Taiwan Brain Trust think tank shows that an overwhelming majority of Taiwanese (80%) believe Taiwan is a sovereign, independent country. [9]As tracked in Surveys by the Election Study Center, NUUC, Taiwan people who consider themselves as Chinese decreased from 10.5% in 1992 to only 3.6% in 2017; on contrary, those regarded as Taiwanese has seen a rapid increase from 17.6% to 56% in 2017.[10] More than 57% of Taiwanese choose to maintain the status quo and people in favour of independence (25.6%) still take priority of people for unification (11.8%). [11]




Taiwanese/Chinese Identification Trend

Distribution in Taiwan(1992/06-2017/06)

Sources:Election Study Center, N.C.C.U., important political attitude trend distribution



Taiwan Independence VS Unification with the Mainland Trend

Distribution in Taiwan(1992/06-2017/06)

Sources: Election Study Center, N.C.C.U., important political attitude trend distribution


Prospects of Cross-Strait Relations


At the 19th Party Congress, Xi spoke of China emerging as a “great socialist country” and realizing the rejuvenation of the nation by the middle of the century. The reunification with Taiwan was a prerequisite. Although Beijing is now aware of the unfavourable or even hostile attitudes of Taiwan people, Xi still offered further benefits such as the commitment to give Taiwan people the same treatment as local people when they pursue their studies, start businesses, seek jobs, or live on the mainland.[12] It shows that apart from the seemingly ineffective means of economic exchanges for political integration, Beijing switches to other means as attempts to appeal to Taiwan people. After Beijing’s realization of the true attitudes of Taiwan people after intense economic exchanges, a reflection of the former policy will be needed and it’s likely that other measures would be taken into consideration.


In Beijing’s view, cross-strait relations can only continue to develop peacefully only if the common political foundation - the 1992 Consensus - is upheld. It is likely that the pressure from Beijing will continue in the years ahead until Tsai moves closer towards an unambiguous “One China” position. Taiwan’s 2020 election is drawing near, adding to the uncertainties about cross-strait relations. Could Tsai achieve a second term? If not who would take over? Will the DPP still hold on to power or the more pro-China KMT came back to power and open a narrow window for reviving the “1992 Consensus”?


Given the current state of Taiwan internal politics, all these question marks remain unclear. Although there are top contenders for the 2020 election such as Premier Lai Ching-te and Taipei Mayor Ko Wen-je, no specific political leader or party is comfortably ahead in the opinion polls at present.


In August 2017, Tsai’s approval ratings dropped to 29.8% – the historically lowest since her presidency according to a monthly poll released by the Taiwanese Public Opinion Foundation[13], which was mainly due to the bitter controversies on her major policies - cross-straits deadlock, ineffective economic policies, lack of labour and justice reforms. Despite a modest climb up to 35.9% at year’s end, her dissatisfaction rate still exceeds the approval rate.


Tsai’s newly appointed Premier Lai Ching-te – former mayor of Tainan City and a potential presidential candidate in 2020, received high job satisfaction rating of 60%.[14] Earlier in June 2017, the DPP member Lai surprised people with his remarks of “Pro-China, Loving Taiwan” despite his reaffirmation of his pro-independence stance. His narrative was seen as a surprise strategy on cross-strait relations and a challenge to Tsai’s path and might win the support of the pro-independence fraction before 2020.  Apart from Lai, several mayors from DPP also advocated more amicable exchanges with Mainland China and tried to remove the “anti-China” label placed on the DPP, showing that Tsai is losing her influence and control over the green camp as leader of DPP.


As for the party preference, 23.9% of Taiwanese are in favour of DPP while 22.5% support KMT led by Wu Den-yih. 48.2% remain neutral in regard to party preferences. [15] It may explain the public popularity of the “non-partisan” Mayor of Taipei City – Ko Wen-je, whose support rating is almost 70% in a poll conducted in August 2017[16]. As a former surgeon, Ko’s popularity reveals people’s distrust of the established political parties and boredom with party fighting. Comparing the cross-strait relations to quarrelling lovers with remarks “cross-strait as one family” but without clear policy towards Mainland China, Ko is also viewed as one of the top rivals for the presidential election in 2020.


To sum up, Beijing is now gradually aware that intense economic exchanges failed to win the hearts of Taiwan people. New tactics are needed. Economic and foreign pressure from Beijing would continue until the “One China” principle is upheld by Taiwan. Given the state of internal politics in Taiwan, the prospects of cross-strait relations remain unclear.