Chris Taylor

Taiwan: a nation encaged

Taipei 101 (1 of 1)


TSAI ING-WEN’S presidential inauguration speech has been parsed closely for clues about her position on cross-strait relations. The conclusions will be diverse, but at face value it offered less than scattered breadcrumbs to Beijing.

The speech delivered by Taiwan’s first female president was principally directed at the interests of the Taiwanese people—Taiwanese identity, Taiwan’s economy, employment, opportunities for its youth, its social safety net for the elderly and disadvantaged, and the integrity of its judiciary, among a host of domestic concerns that cumulatively led to the ouster of the Kuomintang (KMT) after eight years of rule.

Broadly speaking, these are issues that not only handed Tsai the presidency, but—in a historical first—gave her Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) control of both the executive and legislative branches of government. Tsai acknowledged that in a speech that invoked the needs of the “nation,” as she repeatedly called Taiwan.

Insofar as she spoke on the issue of Taiwan’s troubled relationship with China at all, Tsai was—by any reasonable, non-Beijing defined standards—non-confrontational but simultaneously non-conciliatory. However, she also pointedly alluded to the United States, Europe and Japan as a community of shared democratic values—implying, it could be argued, that Chinese Communist Party (CCP)-governed China is not.

There, for China, is the rub—multiple rubs, if you like.

Tsai did not play by the CCP rulebook, which has consistently strived to isolate and cage Taiwan. She offered less even than a nod in acknowledgement of China’s growing geopolitical clout and its regional aspirations. Both the pageantry of her inauguration and the substance of her inaugural acceptance speech amounted to a celebration of Taiwan’s identity and unique place in the world. Moreover, it it was at the same time meticulously scripted in the spirit of level-headed pragmatism.

But the reality is that Tsai not only adeptly snubbed China by essentially ignoring it as a primary economic partner—even as a neighboring world power—but also set out to redefine the sacred guidelines the CCP regards as fundamental to negotiating with Taiwan.

Tsai referred to the so-called 1992 Consensus as the “1992 meetings”—which is factually correct, given that the very concept of a consensus did not emerge until eight years after meetings between representatives from both sides of the Taiwan Strait. She made no reference to “One China”, no reference to the status quo. She also remarked that it was time for Taiwan to move forward from its over-reliance on “one economy”—read China—and embrace the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and to push forward with Taiwan’s Southbound Policy via the ASEAN Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP).

It cannot be overstated how inimical to CCP strategy and its perceived interests these Taiwan position statements are.

Beijing will see Tsai’s inaugural commitment to seek “common ground” with China and work to “shelve differences” as nothing more than platitudes. For the CCP, there is “one China” and it is mediated by a so-called “consensus” that provides the “creative ambiguity” of agreeing to disagree about who governs it—and that amounts to a zero-sum game, which Beijing expects to win, of the strongest player takes all.

If Beijing had hoped to cow Tsai into some kind of compromise, it has failed. In her inauguration speech, Tsai cleaved to a position she staked out in a talk at the Washington Center for Strategic and International Studies in June last year.

As The Diplomat reported at the time, Tsai referred to “the accumulated outcomes of more than twenty years of negotiations and exchanges”  between between both sides of the strait, and said she would legislate a Cross-Strait Agreement Oversight Bill “to establish a comprehensive set of rules for overseeing the cross-strait exchanges and negotiations.”

This is nothing short of Taiwan’s incoming government stating it plans to set its own terms of engagement with China, as a de facto independent state with a plurality of values that are odds with those of Beijing’s.

Taiwan’s president has every right to take the position Tsai has. The island is a democracy and an economic powerhouse, and it long ago outgrew the ROC chimera of being the legitimate government of the mainland—and even, according to every poll conducted in recent years, to being ethnically Chinese.

Sadly, in conveying this message to the world at large, Taiwan faces a brash, noisy, nouveau riche combatant in China. The problem is compounded by the fact that the foreign media have next to no representation in Taiwan, and correspondents parachuted in for special occasions, such as the inauguration of a new president tend, at least in part, to bend with the wind of Beijing’s bluster.

We can expect a lot of such bluster in the days ahead, and some of it will be echoed in foreign news outlets. It started before Tsai even took to the stage as president for the first time. To take a random recent Reuters report as an example. “Ahead of inauguration, China says Taiwan to blame for any crisis.”

Yes, that’s the headline, and in the scrolling, bite-sized, graze-and-move-on temper of our times it potentially becomes the story.

But there is another story. As Shelly Rigger notes in her wide-ranging book on the Taiwan issue, Why Taiwan Matters: Small Island, Global Powerhouse, “For centuries, powerful countries treated Taiwan as war booty, an afterthought. In the past half century, Taiwan’s people rejected that status and stood up for themselves.”

Tsai’s presidential inauguration speech spoke directly to this evolving reality, adding that Taiwan is uniquely placed to continue to reform and transform itself further into a model regional democracy—to tell its own story and reconfigure the rules of engagement with China.

The chief question is whether anyone will listen.

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