In her inaugural address on May 20, Tsai Ing-wen, Taiwan’s new leader, stated her longstanding views on cross-Strait relations, while only giving a minimal response to Beijing’s call for her to recognize the 1992 Consensus and its core meaning, i.e., that the two sides of the Taiwan Strait belong to one and the same China. In the carefully written speech, she substituted “the existing political foundations”, a vague phrase she has formulated, for the political foundation that has underpinned the peaceful development of cross-Strait relations in recent years, thus effecting a subtle change in the status quo of cross-Strait relations.
First, Tsai avoided describing the nature of cross-Strait relations. Before the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) returned to power early this year, the ruling parties in both Taiwan and the Chinese mainland agreed on the 1992 Consensus being the common political foundation of cross-Strait relations. Instead of formally recognizing this, Tsai merely expressed respect for – not acceptance of – “various joint acknowledgments and understandings” arrived at in 1992 between the Straits Exchange Foundation representing Taiwan and the Association for Relations Across the Taiwan Straits (ARATS) representing the Mainland.
Tsai said that her administration “will conduct cross-Strait affairs in accordance with the Republic of China (ROC) Constitution, the Act Governing Relations Between the People of Taiwan Area and the Mainland Area, and other relevant legislation.” Does “other relevant legislation” include future legislation that changes the nature of cross-Strait relations? She did not specify. She also failed to explicitly support the one-China principle enshrined in the ROC Constitution, clarify what principles would guide cross-Strait interactions, or state that cross-Strait relations are not “state-to-state” relations. Taken as a whole, her speech marks a clear change of the status quo defined and made possible by the Ma Ying-jeou administration and the Chinese mainland.
Second, Tsai redefined the common political foundation of cross-Strait relations previously agreed to by Taipei and Beijing. The new era of peaceful development of cross-Strait relations was built on the 1992 Consensus, which was applauded by the international community. Tsai’s “existing political foundations”, in contrast are proposed by the DPP and potentially open the door to a unilateral change of the status quo.
For example, according to Tsai, “existing political foundations” comprise “the existing Republic of China constitutional order”, which is an umbrella term that embraces both pro-unification and pro-independence leanings. More specifically, it includes not just the one-China principle enshrined in the ROC Constitution, but also the “two-state” theory and “one country on each side” theory advocated by Lee Teng-hui and Chen Shui-bian (which are arguably in violation of the ROC Constitution) and the seeds for “independence through referendum” and “de jure independence” (mainlanders ruled out as ROC nationals under Taiwan’s Nationality Law being an obvious example).
The phrase “existing political foundations” also includes “the democratic principle and prevalent will of the people of Taiwan”. Tsai’s choice of words – “Taiwan”, instead of “the two sides” – suggests the possibility of changing the status quo through referendum. This is an ominous sign, given that her own party is pushing for amendments to the Referendum Act in the Legislative Yuan. One cannot but think of Chen Shui-bian’s proposed referendum on joining the United Nations under the name of Taiwan back in 2007 – and the crisis that reckless move triggered. Once the Pandora’s box is open, the genie is hard to put back in.
Last but not least, the Mainland Affairs Council (MAC) and the SEF in Taiwan, following the example of the Tsai administration, were also silent on the historical fact and core meaning of the 1992 Consensus, thus crippling the existing channels of communication between the two sides. The fact is, even if Tsai wanted to avoid any direct reference to the 1992 Consensus, she could have – at a minimum – authorized MAC and SEF to thrash out what it means exactly.
All indications are, Tsai Ing-wen and MAC are half-hearted about the 1992 Consensus. The very next day following her inauguration, education officials of her administration meddled in changing the school curriculum in Taiwan in the direction of “cultural independence”, which Tsai knows as well as anyone will erode the fragile mutual trust between the two sides. Pending clear signals from MAC and SEF concerning the 1992 Consensus, the cross-Strait consultations institutionalized in recent years can only be discontinued.
It has not escaped people’s attention that Tsai discussed cross-Strait relations in a regional context, hence diluting cross-Strait relations and severing Taiwan’s ties with the Chinese mainland.
To the uninitiated, the speech was moderate in tone – but under the carefully constructed facade of “moderation” lurk various traps for cross-Strait relations. The impression a disinterested reader gets of her speech is not that of American-style candor but of Japanese-style victimhood. The speech has not shown a viable way forward. Beware a period of uncertainty and unpleasant surprises in cross-Strait relations.