Taiwan has concluded its 2012 presidential election. In a three-way race, the incumbent President Ma Ying-jeou of the Nationalist Party (Kuomintang or KMT) won re-election. His main challenger, Dr. Tsai Ing-wen of the opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), lost the election by a substantial margin, 800,000 votes out of the 13 million votes cast. In her concession speech, Tsai asked her supporters “to recall the despair of four years ago” when the DPP suffered a terrible defeat after the disastrous 8-year rule of the DPP under President Chen Shui-bian. “We moved forward step-by-step,” she said, “[t]his time, we just came up short of reaching the peak by one mile.” In the aftermath of the election, observers and pundits, including some in her own party, concluded that the DPP’s cross-Strait policy had failed. Such an assessment may be able to explain why the DPP lost the 2012 presidential election, but it does not give the DPP and its cross-Strait policy the proper credit because, paradoxically, Taiwan has benefited from this “failed” policy in recent years.
The issue of cross-Strait relations has always been at the center of Taiwanese politics. The 2012 presidential election was no exception as the debate focused on the so-called “1992 Consensus” or the “one China with respective interpretations.” The Consensus is a tacit understanding reached by Beijing and Taipei in 1992 which allows both sides to recognize the concept of “one China” as the basis for cross-Strait interaction but also to finesse the uncomfortable details. Along with the three-no policy of “no unification, no independence, and no use of military force,” this “agree-to-disagree” formula has become the basis of Ma’s engagement policies with China. Beijing leaders have responded positively to Taipei’s rapprochement approach so far and Taiwan’s relations with China have improved substantially since 2008. During the subsequent three years, the Ma administration has deepened cross-Strait economic ties and has signed more than a dozen agreements with Beijing, including a landmark trade deal: the Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement (ECFA).
Ma’s policies have received the approval of the majority of the electorate but his backing comes mainly from KMT supporters and “centrist voters” (zhongjian xuanmin). A recent public opinion poll shows that more than half of Tsai’s DPP followers disapprove of the “one China with respective interpretations” formulation as the basis of cross-Strait interactions. To their way of thinking, the “1992 Consensus” merely sugar coats Beijing’s version of the “one China principle” and masks its intention to annex Taiwan. They expressed concern over the deepening of cross-Strait interactions fearing that the island’s increasing dependence on the Chinese market would threaten Taiwan’s economic autonomy. Tsai’s objection to the ECFA reflects this sentiment. Prior to the signing of the accord, she argued publicly that the proposed trade pact would erode Taiwan’s sovereignty as it would be based on the “one China principle” at Beijing’s insistence. The agreement would also harm Taiwan’s small and medium enterprises and its farmers and workers as the island would become a dumping ground for low-priced goods from China.
Beijing has been watching these developments very closely. Chinese leaders learned from Taiwan’s 1996 and 2000 presidential elections that coercive policies are counterproductive to their cause of unification. They thus have increasingly relied on the policy of “placing hope on the Taiwanese people.” To cultivate friendly positive attitude toward China, particularly in the southern part of Taiwan where the DPP’s main support lies, Beijing made a series of concessions to Taipei during the negotiation of ECFA. It agreed that the proposed trade pact would be a strictly economic arrangement and not a political one in order to quell the DPP’s concern that the ECFA would erode Taiwan’s sovereignty. It also made many “profit concessions” (rhangli) including favorable tariff treatments for more than 500 types of Taiwanese goods, whereas Chinese companies only got preferential tax breaks on about 260 items. To appease citizens in southern Taiwan, the accord also includes more than a dozen farming and fishing categories on China’s part, with no reciprocal liberalization by Taiwan. As a result, Taipei under Ma’s leadership was able to obtain a trade deal that provided much economic advantage for Taiwan without having to confront the tricky subject of the “one China” principle. All of these “advantages” were acquired by Taipei’s negotiators because, as one Taiwanese official who was involved in the negotiation process commented to this author, Beijing had “[DPP’s and its supporters’] concerns in its mind” at the negotiation table.
In the aftermath of the election, the DPP has been doing some soul-searching, reflecting on the Party’s policy towards China. It has recognized that Tsai’s cross-Strait policy as packaged under the proposal of “Taiwan Consensus” was devoid of specifics and failed to provide the island citizens a sense of certainty and stability. Ma’s policy, by comparison, has a proven record of engaging China and has received positive reviews from Washington. As a result, some in the DPP believe that the Party should accept the “one China with respective interpretations” as the basis of cross-Strait interactions, while others reject the idea. It is too early to tell what exactly the DPP’s future cross-Strait policy will become, but it is unlikely that the Party will openly abandon its pro-independence position as it has the strong backing of its core base known as the “Deep-Green Supporters.” Estimated at about 10% of the electorate, Deep-Green supporters have exercised substantial influence within the DPP. Indeed, their unswerving anti-China stand was the main reason for Tsai’s ambiguous “Taiwan Consensus” proposal in the 2012 presidential election.
Traditionally, neither the KMT nor the DPP can claim an enduring majority in island-wide elections even though the former has enjoyed a structural advantage. To win a general election, both parties need the support of their core base plus that of centrist voters. During the 2012 presidential campaign, Tsai needed to retain the backing of her Deep-Green base. But in order to win, she also needed the support of centrist voters who are not in favor of unification but want to avoid inflammatory rhetoric and policies that could lead to cross-Strait tension. Tsai was caught in the dilemma of how to appeal to the Party’s pro-independence core supporters while not alienating more moderate centrist voters. Ambiguity became the optimal course of action but Tsai’s “Taiwan Consensus” failed to present itself as a credible alternative to the “1992 Consensus.” Even if the DPP, after considerable soul-searching, decides to accept the “1992 Consensus” as the basis for cross-Strait interactions, the Party is likely to add a pro-independence twist in it, which will be difficult for Chinese leaders to accept given Beijing’s steadfast insistence on the “one China principle.” If so, history may repeat itself in 2016 as the DPP cross-Strait policy may again fail to give the majority of the Taiwanese citizens, especially centrist voters, a sense of certainty and stability.
The Ma administration needs to continue its exploitation of the DPP’s misfortune. Observers generally believe that Beijing is likely to press Taipei for political talks during Ma’s second term. Although Ma’s rapprochement policy is based on an “agree-to-disagree” formula, it is considered to be by far the most positive response on the part of Taipei to Beijing’s position in the past decades. Considering that Taiwan has regular and democratic elections, Chinese leaders may try to take advantage of Taipei’s current friendly policies lest a future elected government be less forthcoming. They could employ their political and economic resources to force Taiwan-China relations to a tipping point that would lead to eventual political unification. Should this occur, the Ma administration will need all the help it can get to resist the enormous pressure from Beijing. In this scenario, concerns represented by the DPP and its followers might become crucial for Taipei. Unless Beijing can convince the majority of the Taiwanese people, including those identified with the DPP and the cause the Party represents, that political unification is desirable, the “my hands are tied” argument may be the best negotiation tactic for the Ma administration. For the DPP, the irony is that its misfortune may contribute to Taiwan’s most important defense against Chinese pressure in future cross-Strait talks.
T.Y. Wang is Professor of Political Science, Illinois State University, Normal, Illinois, USA. He is the Co-Editor of Journal of Asian and African Studies. His personal website is accessible here.