President Tsai’s biggest test would be to counter China’s offensive aimed at isolating Taiwan diplomatically.
Although Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen recently completed her administration’s two years in office, her domestic and external political challenges are expected to get far more acute. With a waning support base at home, Tsai’s biggest challenge internally is restoring Taiwan’s stagnating economy. To rejuvenate this, her economic reforms plan has come under scathing criticism. Tsai’s administration has decisively shifted Taiwan’s export market with a renewed focus towards South and Southeast Asia as part of the “New Southbound Policy”, which aims at lessening over-dependence on Mainland China and Hong Kong.
Externally, President Tsai Ing-wen’s biggest test would be to counter Mainland China’s unswerving offensive aimed at isolating the democratic island nation diplomatically. China is exerting increasing pressure by means of a belligerent diplomatic campaign, which ensures that Taiwan’s official foreign ties with few remaining nations get snapped. Ever since Tsai took oath as Taiwanese President in 2016, China has found success with as many as four countries including São Tomé and Príncipe, Panama, the Dominican Republic, and Burkina Faso deciding to formally cut all diplomatic relations with Taiwan in favour of Mainland China, leaving Taiwan with just 18 nations that still maintain official ties with it.
Tsai Ing-wen has taken a resolute stance that Taiwan shall “never give in” to China and that the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) government “will conduct cross-Strait affairs in accordance with the Republic of China Constitution, the Act Governing Relations Between the People of Taiwan Area and the Mainland Area, and other relevant legislation”—thereby circumventing the question whether she accepts or rejects the 1992 Consensus on One-China, which has been a repeated pledge and demand made by the Mainland.
Be it dispatching fighter jets and naval vessels during encirclement drills around the island, launching a new aviation corridor over the Taiwan Strait, luring diplomatic partners away with Yuan-diplomacy, forcing international corporations to change the name they use to refer to Taiwan, or preventing Taipei from participating in international organisations including the WHO, China’s clampdown to undermine Taiwanese sovereignty is threatening the Cross-Strait security situation. It also indicates that Beijing very apparently, is unwilling to deal with Tsai Ing-wen.
Sensing the direction of Taiwan’s domestic political winds, in a significant development, President Xi Jinping chose to meet a delegation from Taiwan in July 2018, led by former Chairman of the Kuomintang (KMT) Party, Lien Chan at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing. The focus of Xi’s remarks during the meeting was upon the “ability to keep a firm hold…and advance the process toward the peaceful reunification of the motherland”. Repeatedly mentioning the “great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation” Xi urged upon the realisation of the “Chinese dream of national rejuvenation”. In a sharp warning to the Tsai Ing-wen administration, Xi issued a caution that the PRC shall “never allow any attempts of ‘Taiwan independence’ to succeed… such attempts are doomed to fail”.
Former KMT chairman, Lien Chen too made an unequivocal political pitch in Beijing when he proposed upholding the “One-China” principle and realising rejuvenation of the Chinese nation. Citing that the “current situation in the Taiwan Strait has been destabilised”, Lien highlighted the need to resume dialogue on basis of the 1992 Consensus. Herein lies the fundamental problem. Xi Jinping’s emphasis, seconded by Lien, regarding the 1992 Consensus embodying the One-China principle, which inherently opposes and deters Taiwan from declaring independence, appears to be an impractical and unworkable approach for incumbent President Tsai Ing-wen and the DPP to adopt. The well known proactive “pro-independence” political stance of the DPP has been met with stiff opposition from Mainland China with Beijing known to have blocked almost all channels of institutionalised communication, despite perpetual efforts by Taipei to reopen cables.
According to the codified 1992 Consensus, the “One-China” policy has been held by both the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and the Republic of China (ROC), commonly referred to as Taiwan. The “One-China” principle and policy (yī gè Zhōngguó) primarily holds that there is only one sovereign state encompassing both Mainland China and Taiwan, with both sides sharply contesting as being the legitimate party. It is nearly an impossible scenario in which Tsai Ing-wen, or the DPP for that matter, shall assume the official line that “Taiwan is part of One-China”. More so, in the event of Tsai getting re-elected as the Taiwanese President in 2020, Beijing’s Taiwan policy might be heading towards introducing newer and more coercive elements to mount greater political and military pressure on Formosa.
Dr Monika Chansoria is a Tokyo-based Senior Visiting Fellow at the Japan Institute of International Affairs (JIIA).