Tsai Ing-wen will be inaugurated as the new president of the Republic of China (Taiwan) in less than four weeks, on May 20. The big unknown as the rotation of power nears is whether she and Chinese leaders will be able to find a mutually acceptable way to sustain relations across the Taiwan Strait at their recent level and tone. President-elect Tsai wants that outcome. Chinese leaders, on the other hand, repeatedly call on her to provide credible assurances of her good intentions. If this gap persists until May 20 and beyond, deterioration in cross-Strait relations is likely—the only question will be how deep it will go.
“Are you or have you ever been…”
At issue is whether Tsai is prepared to associate herself with two principles that China holds dear, and whether she is willing to do so clearly and affirmatively, as Beijing publicly demands. Her oft-stated goal is to “maintain the status quo” with China. Beijing isn’t making that easy.
The first principle is the 1992 Consensus, an understanding between Beijing and Taipei where the two sides agree to the idea of “one China.” The second principle is what China calls the “core connotation” of the 1992 Consensus: that the geographic territories of the Chinese Mainland and Taiwan both belong to that one China. So far, Tsai has been willing to allude to these two principles in a positive way but not accept them explicitly.
The likely reason for Tsai’s ambiguity is that for her, Beijing’s stated requirement is something of a poison pill. She is the leader of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), which 25 years ago stated the clear objective creating a Republic of Taiwan—in effect, Taiwan independence. That objective is still in the party’s charter, but only a small majority of the island’s public shares that goal, and Taiwan faces many other more pressing problems. Tsai Ing-wen certainly gives the impression that she needs to give those her primary attention.
However, for her to accept the principles that China says are preconditions for stable cross-Strait relations would alienate the true believers in her party. (Some of them would probably say: “Sure, there’s one China, but we [Taiwan] are not a part of it.”) Beijing would like a clear statement from her because it believes it needs assurance that she and the DPP will not pursue Taiwan independence. In effect, however, it is presenting her with a forced choice between her policy goals and maintaining the loyalty of her political base. There’s also an obvious asymmetry in all of this: Beijing publicly demands concessions from Tsai, but she makes no public demands in return.
Between clarity and ambiguity
There is an irony in Beijing’s insistence, since the 1992 Consensus was itself an ambiguous construct. The governments of China and Taiwan agreed in general on one China, but they’ve stated different interpretations of the formula. When Ma Ying-jeou, Taiwan’s outgoing president, came into office in 2008, he publicly accepted the 1992 Consensus but then frequently said he interpreted “one China” to mean the Republic of China (ROC). Since Beijing believes the ROC ceased to exist in 1949, it allowed Ma to get away with a measure of ambiguity. Similarly, each side of the Strait says it wants to continue the “status quo,” but they differ on what that means.
Now, Beijing is publicly demanding a high degree of clarity from President-elect Tsai. She has accommodated to an extent in her references to the 1992 Consensus and the “core connotation,” but probably feels constrained on how much further she can shift, for political and substantive reasons.
Will the two sides be able to find a mutually acceptable place on the spectrum in between clarity and ambiguity? Judging by Beijing’s forceful insistence, probably not. They probably know that President-elect Tsai is not willing to alienate her base for the sake of cross-Strait relations, which suggests that perhaps their strategy is to set the bar so high that she cannot clear it. Beijing sees no reason to make life easy for Tsai and the DPP—it would like her and her party to lose power as soon as possible.
If the impasse continues beyond Tsai’s inaugural address next month, China will likely sanction her government for not complying with its requirements. Beijing might suspend more official interactions on economic and other issues, reduce the number of Chinese tourists and students going to Taiwan, and/or induce some of Taiwan’s diplomatic partners to switch to Beijing to constrain Taiwan’s international space, among other possible measures.
What trust-building looks like
It’s possible, of course, that a different conversation is taking place behind the scenes. If it is, the content may be more pragmatic and tone more moderate. The Chinese officials conducting that dialogue might be prepared to tolerate greater ambiguity from Tsai than what other Chinese officials are demanding publicly.
Even if such a conversation is occurring, it might not succeed. And even if it results in an understanding that gets Beijing and Taipei past May 20, there is no guarantee that the mutual accommodation will stick. The two sides are at the beginning of a trust-building process, not the end. So far, it is Beijing’s deep mistrust of Tsai’s intentions—and its demand that she state them up front—that is at the root of the stalemate.
At work here are two models for reducing mistrust. One is Beijing’s demand that Tsai Ing-wen explicitly state her adherence to principles it insists are basic to cross-Strait relations as a down-payment for preserving the status quo. This is a one-sided interaction in which China makes the demands and Tsai is expected to accommodate, and does not seem to be a good way to facilitate cooperative interaction. The other model is a step-by-step process of trust-building and confidence, where good intentions are proven by a reciprocal pattern of words and deeds. Gradualism won’t guarantee long-term harmony, but it is much more likely to succeed.
On February 24, Vanda Felbab-Brown joins the National Committee on US-China Relations for a discussion on “The faces of fentanyl: China, the United States, and those in-between.”
It seems like the administration has tried to keep a clear, consistent tone in terms of being really upfront about the range of U.S. concerns vis-à-vis Beijing’s behavior and about the competitive nature of the relationship overall, and [President Biden's first call with Chinese President Xi] reflects that.