People of Taiwan should decide own future
The re-election of Ma Ying-jeou was welcomed in China and brought a collective sigh of relief in the world’s capitals, with congratulations pouring into Taiwan from the United States, the European Union, Japan, Australia and Singapore.
While the U.S. was officially neutral in Taiwan’s election, it was clear that many American officials and scholars were quietly ― and sometimes not so quietly ― rooting for Ma rather than his opponent, Tsai Ing-wen of the pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party.
That is because they feared another period of cross-strait turmoil, such as prevailed during the presidency of Chen Shui-bian, whom American officials labeled a troublemaker, willing to risk American lives while he repeatedly provoked Beijing.
Ma’s victory means that the chances of a cross-strait confrontation have been greatly reduced in the next four years. But what will happen in 2016? Will the world again be in a state of suspense while tiny Taiwan decides on its next leader?
Much, of course, will depend on what happens between now and then, not only in Taiwan but, even more importantly, in mainland China.
In Taiwan, the DPP will have to devise a new China strategy. Tsai’s defeat can be attributed to voter distrust of the DPP’s ability to manage the relationship with China even though she promised not to undo any of the 16 cross-strait agreements reached during the Ma administration.
Those agreements had been reached on the basis of the acceptance by both mainland China and Taiwan of the so-called “1992 consensus,” reached in Hong Kong that year, under which both sides agree that there is only one China but each side is free to express the meaning of one China in its own way.
The so-called consensus can also be described as an agreement to disagree ― with the mainland saying that “one China” is the People’s Republic of China and Taiwan saying that it is the Republic of China. The reality, of course, is that the term “1992 consensus” is a diplomatic fig leaf to cover up the lack of agreement. But, if Beijing is willing to accept the leaf, there is no good reason for Taiwan to demur.
So it is likely that the DPP will find that it has no choice but to accept the “1992 consensus.” In addition, the DPP should accept the national flag and the anthem of the Republic of China. That is the least it can do if it wants to contest the presidency of the republic.
The current Chinese leader, Hu Jintao, is scheduled to step down as the Communist Party’s general secretary later this year and to give up the presidency next year.
In all likelihood, he will be succeeded by Vice President Xi Jinping.
The current relatively relaxed cross-strait policy, which emphasizes carrots over sticks, is largely the work of Hu. President Ma’s re-election shows the success of that policy, which has won the support not just of the business community in Taiwan but of many of its farmers, whose fruits and fish are now imported by the mainland.
Hu, in his remaining months as leader, is unlikely to press for a settlement of the Taiwan issue since time is running out for him and he knows that President Ma’s mandate from the electorate is to continue to improve cross-strait relations and not to reach a dramatic deal on unification.
Similarly, the incoming leader, Xi, is unlikely to push for a political resolution before he has had a year or two to consolidate his power.
So, from Beijing’s perspective, the next few years may best be spent in entrenching the cross-strait economic relationship, wooing Taiwan’s public and continuing to emphasize carrots rather than sticks.
Besides, Ma said immediately after the election results were made public that the time was not yet ripe for conducting political dialogue with the mainland, and that he would continue to put economics before politics.
For the mainland, it should be sufficient to know that political discussions are not ruled out by Taiwan but that now is not the time because neither side is ready.
Thus, there is likely to be a relatively peaceful cross-strait environment for the next several years.
But Beijing should know that when the time does come for political talks, since Taiwan is a democracy, no government can reach a deal on the island’s future without submitting it to the electorate for approval, most likely in the form of a referendum. Ultimately, it is up to the people of Taiwan to decide their own fate.
Frank Ching is a journalist and commentator based in Hong Kong. Email the writer at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter: @FrankChing1.