Strait Talk: Taiwan's Politicians are Split on Keeping the ‘Status Quo’

Strait Talk: Taiwan's Politicians are Split on Keeping the ‘Status Quo’

Ahead of the election, the two major parties clash over the future of relations with mainland China.

Less than six weeks before Taiwan’s 2016 presidential election in January, presidential candidates in Taiwan have stepped up efforts to sway voters in their favor. Among key issues that matter to all voters—job growth, retirement and the health of the national economy—much focus has been placed on how the cross-strait relations should proceed in the future. A consistent polling result since 1996 has shown that a steady one-third of the Taiwanese people chose to maintain the “status quo” with mainland China and to leave the future relationship undecided. Based on the polling, the ruling Kuomintang (KMT) and the major opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) have respectively defined the concept of the “status quo,” each with a different focus on handling the competing relations between the Taiwan public and mainland Chinese leadership. While the KMT emphasizes international and legal aspects of the concept, the DPP’s definition is more domestically driven, related to Taiwan’s democratic system. But what exactly does the Taiwan public want in a cross-strait relationship?

What’s the “status quo”?

In early March 2015, President Ma Ying-jeou reaffirmed that his administration would continue its cross-strait policy to “maintain the status quo” in the Taiwan Strait. His policy rests on two pillars: 1) no announcement of unification or independence and no use of force under the Republic of China (ROC) Constitution to resolve cross-strait issues; and 2) promoting the peaceful development of cross-strait relations on the basis of the “1992 consensus” that accepts “One China” but allows the two sides to have their respective interpretations. In his meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping in Singapore in November, President Ma explained the legal aspect of his interpretation of the “status quo” concept by upholding the 1992 consensus. According to Ma, the ROC Constitution only allows one China to exist; “two Chinas,” “one China and one Taiwan” or “Taiwan independence” is not allowed in the constitution.

The 1992 consensus, which keeps the concept of “One China” but accepts strategic uncertainty surrounding its precise definition, not only allows wiggle room for Beijing and Taipei to conduct cross-strait exchanges but also complies with the ROC Constitution. Aside from the legal front, President Ma’s interpretation of the “status quo” concept has an international focus. In his opening remarks at the Ma-Xi meeting, President Ma proposed five points of maintaining the status quo of the cross-strait relations. He explicitly named such status quo as one “to maintain the peace and prosperity in the Taiwan Strait,” appearing to raise the awareness of the international community that the conditions in the Taiwan Strait impact the entire region. Along the same line, the KMT presidential candidate Eric Chu in his recent article in the Washington Times maintained that the peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait “fits the national interests of not just Taiwan and China, but also the United States.”

Compared to Ma’s international and legal focus, DPP presidential candidate Tsai Ing-wen’s interpretation of the “status quo” concept highlighted a domestic aspect. A day before the Ma-Xi meeting, Tsai has argued that the difference between hers and President Ma’s “status quo” by definition lies in Taiwan’s “democracy,” which she defined as “the right for the twenty-three million people in Taiwan to choose and determine their own future.” Commenting on the Ma-Xi meeting on November 7, Tsai again underlined the significance of defending “the value and rights to which the Taiwanese people adhere.” She criticized President Ma’s “yielding attitude” toward President Xi in his opening remarks, in which Ma mentioned “One China” of the 1992 consensus without touching on the respective interpretations by the two sides of the Taiwan Strait.

In fact, back in early June at a San Francisco press reception, Tsai revealed that the DPP’s definition of the “status quo” has a domestic focus. On the basis of the “existing ROC constitutional order” and the “accumulated outcomes of more than twenty years of negotiations and exchanges between both sides of the Strait,” Tsai’s “status quo” means: 1) sustaining the freedom and democracy enjoyed by the people of Taiwan; and 2) preserving the current status of peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait.

What do the people want?

With the two parties’ differing interpretations of the “status quo” concept, a question now comes: do the two parties capture what the Taiwan public wants in a future cross-strait relationship? In a recent multiple-choice question asking the Taiwan public about their preference for the cross-strait relations, four options stood out by respectively winning more than 60 percent of the popular vote. The four choices include “one country on each side,” “under the ROC Constitution framework to develop cross-strait relations,” “one China, one Taiwan” and “no announcement of unification or independence, and no use of force.”

The polling results seem to disclose a somewhat contradictory mindset of the Taiwan public as to their views on the cross-strait relations. Logically, the preference for a cross-strait relationship with “no announcement of unification or independence, and no use of force” implies not only people’s desire for the maintenance of cross-strait peace and stability but also their disinclination to choose an ultimate political arrangement in Taiwan’s relations with mainland China. Choosing “one country on each side” and “one China, one Taiwan,” however, suggests that the Taiwanese people prefer Taiwan as an entity separated from mainland China.

In fact, all options that contain the concept of “One China” were among the bottom five in the survey. (Those options include “both sides of the Taiwan Strait are part of one China,” “one country, two governments,” “one country, two areas,” and “one China, common interpretations.”) The seemingly contradictory results, in fact, disclose the rising Taiwanese identity and the people’s concerns of Beijing’s military attack once Taiwan is to take steps toward separation from the mainland. Whether the rising Taiwanese identity can be transformed into people’s support for a policy step toward Taiwan independence is thus complicated by Taiwan’s security environment.

For the Ma administration and the KMT, the status quo is defined both externally and domestically, and maybe is more on the international and legal dimension based upon the ROC Constitution. Deep belief for the KMT lies in that Taiwan’s relation with mainland China is not a state-to-state but rather a cross-strait relationship, one in which both sides enjoy respective jurisdictions. Put into a historic perspective, the ebb and flow of the cross-strait relations predated the transition to democracy in Taiwan, and democratic consolidation in Taiwan came in tandem with a peaceful and stable cross-strait relationship.

For Tsai and the DPP, the status quo refers more to the democratic way of life in Taiwan, without accepting “One China” as a precondition. And the high hope is mainland China would never bother the DPP for clarification. If any pressure from mainland China were to happen, it can be seen as a move trying to spoil peace and stability in Asia-Pacific and thus change the status quo of the Taiwan Strait.

Nevertheless, the status quo is also dynamic, and mainland China is aware of that. The People’s Republic of China (PRC) for decades has continued a hymn to the motherland that “There is but one China and Taiwan is part of China.” This status quo is defined by a more internationally driven thinking. However, when President Ma repeatedly mentioned the terms “ROC” and “constitution” during his meeting with Xi, some observers in mainland China began to predict that now the relations are changing a direction dubbed as “One Country, Two Governments.”

Institutionalization may not be panacea to all issues and problems across the Taiwan Strait, but Taiwan’s viable options are relatively limited at this moment given mainland China’s growing material capabilities and political influence. A major challenge of the institutionalization of the cross-strait relations is whether Beijing would continue the process without the affirmation of “One China” from a new Taiwan leader, or whether it is possible for Beijing to agree on the institutionalization as long as there’s no mentioning of the separation movement on Taiwan’s side.

Emily S. Chen is the Silas Palmer Fellow with the Hoover Institution, a Young Leader with the Pacific Forum CSIS, and a Non-Resident Fellow with the Center for the National Interest. She received a Master’s degree in East Asian Studies and a focus on international relations at Stanford University. Emily tweets @emilyshchen.

Yeh-chung Lu is Associate Professor in Diplomacy and the Director of International Master’s Program in International Studies (IMPIS) at National Chengchi University (NCCU), Taipei, Taiwan, ROC. He received a Ph.D. degree in Political Science at George Washington University. Yeh-chung tweets @whystillseelu.

Image: Flickr/Alan Wu