Calls for punishing Taiwan due to its unwillingness to recognize the ‘1992 consensus’ have gotten louder ahead of a CCP leadership reshuffle in the fall. That National Congress is exactly the reason why President Tsai should stick to her guns for the time being.
A number of politicians and academics from the pan-blue camp have in recent months argued that President Tsai Ing-wen should show some flexibility toward China by acknowledging the so-called “1992 consensus,” a highly symbolic formulation that Beijing has insisted upon for the resumption of normal cross-Strait interactions.
Following President Tsai’s inauguration on May 20 last year, Beijing ramped up its pressure on Taipei to recognize the “1992 consensus” — a construct that under President Tsai’s predecessor was seen as a conduit for interactions between the two sides — and acknowledge “one China.” In the absence of such recognition, Beijing has ostensibly refused to engage in official interactions with Taipei (though talks using other channels have not ceased altogether) and has implemented a series of “punitive” measures to undermine Taiwan’s economy.
So far, Beijing’s efforts to compel President Tsai to do more to meet its demands have largely failed. A drop in the number of Chinese visitors to Taiwan since May 2016 (mostly those joining tour groups) hasn’t had the detrimental impact on Taiwan’s economy that many had feared. This was largely due to the fact that the number of arrivals from other countries more than made up for the reduced number of arrivals from the People’s Republic of China; in fact, Taiwan registered a record 10.69 million visitors in 2016, suggesting that the Tsai administration’s policy of diversifying its economic relations with other countries is already paying dividends (whether that was a fluke or a definitive trend will be determined by data for 2017 and beyond).
Although Beijing’s use of tourism as a political weapon did cause losers in Taiwan — primarily those in the tourism sector who had become over-reliant on Chinese arrivals since 2008 — this did not translate into political pressure domestically on President Tsai to do more to accommodate China. Thus, despite the pan-blue camp’s insistence that President Tsai’s refusal to mollify her stance on the “1992 consensus” has been harmful to cross-Strait relations, and street protests by marginal pro-unification groups notwithstanding, this argument hasn’t spread within the general public, and therefore President Tsai has not felt it necessary to change her position. The same applies to moves by Beijing to steal diplomatic allies of Taiwan, official and not, which has failed to spark panic in Taiwan. Just as important, Taipei’s stance hasn’t disconcerted Washington, which consequently hasn’t pressured President Tsai to modify her cross-Strait policy by giving more to Beijing.
It should also be said that the claim that President Tsai has not demonstrated flexibility in her cross-Strait does not stand scrutiny. Soon after her election in the January 2016 elections, president-elect Tsai had already stated that she would abide by the Republic of China (ROC) constitutional framework and furthermore underscored the “historical fact” that the two sides had met in 1992. By so saying, and by being consistent in her subsequent comments as president, Tsai had already distanced herself from the more conservative position under the Chen Shui-bian administration, which only succeeded in attracting criticism and pressure from Washington at a time when the U.S., overstretched and embroiled in two major conflicts (Iraq and Afghanistan), did not want renewed tensions in Northeast Asia.
Consequently, the only sticking point has been the language itself, the term “1992 consensus,” which under any circumstances should never be an impediment to constructive ties or to maintaining the “status quo” in the Taiwan Strait. In fact, before they turned silent due a less permissive atmosphere domestically, a number of Chinese academics observed last year that Beijing should show more flexibility on the matter and that it wasn’t necessary for the two sides to use the term “1992 consensus.” Like President Tsai, they argued that substance, not symbol, was what mattered most.
Nevertheless, President Tsai has tasked the Mainland Affairs Council, the agency in charge of handling relations with China, to come up with a “new model” for cross-Strait relations which she hopes will be acceptable to the Taiwanese and palatable enough to Beijing so that normal exchanges can resume. According to sources, the new formulation, about which little is known at the moment, is expected to be made public sometime in the second half of this year.
Another reason why President Tsai should stick to her guns is that Beijing’s intransigence is very likely tied to the 19th National Congress of the Communist Party of China, which will be held in the autumn of 2017. Seen as an occasion where President Xi Jinping will cement his influence as the leader of China, the leadership reshuffle has occasioned a rhetorical hardening among the many candidates who are vying for political appointments in the fall; the lead-up to the National Congress therefore definitely isn’t the time to display softness on “core issues” such as the status of Taiwan, which could explain why the handful of voices that last year had called on Beijing to be accommodating on the “1992 consensus” have all, as we saw, gone silent or changed their tune.
The lead-up to the [CCP] National Congress definitely isn’t the time to display softness on “core issues” such as the status of Taiwan.
Thus not unlike during democratic elections, candidates tend to adopt maximalist positions on issues of national interest. In the world of elite politics under President Xi, signs of weakness are the surest path to defeat, if not investigation for corruption.
Therefore, given the absence of meaningful pressure domestically and from Taiwan’s key ally in Washington, there is no reason for President Tsai to give in to Beijing’s pressure now. For the time being, the best policy is to adopt a wait-and-see attitude until her administration has a better idea of who it will be dealing with after the National Congress. Giving in now would be an unnecessary gift to politicians whose stance is likely to be mollified after the leadership reshuffle, if only because their rhetoric will now be tied to governing — and thus concrete actions — and not simply positioning in the abstract to show who is toughest on Taiwan.
Granted, some China watchers have argued that President Xi could use the National Congress to consolidate his power by bringing more of his ideological allies on board, but that need not necessarily give rise to a more intransigent stance on Taiwan; if it does, President Tsai should adjust her policies then. For now, it would be advisable to let the high passions air themselves in China and wait to see who her interlocutors will be after the reshuffle.
This imperative for patience also means that President Tsai should ignore pressure from within the deep-green (and also marginal) camp to more proactively address issues of Taiwan’s sovereignty, such as holding referenda on whether to seek UN membership, and other measures. There is just too much uncertainty at the moment — uncertainty in Beijing, and uncertainty as to future U.S. engagement in the region and support for Taiwan — to take any action that would risk destabilizing the triangular relationship between Taiwan, the U.S. and China. However deserving Taiwan may be of UN membership, now isn’t the time to rock the boat, and such aspirations, while never abandoned, should be kept over the horizon.
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