Whatever the reason, there is a significant possibility that if Tsai Ing-wen is elected president of Taiwan next January, a cross-Strait crisis could ensue. This may occur even though Tsai has made a concerted effort to articulate a strategy aimed at maintaining the cross-Strait status quo. In a speech delivered at CSIS during her U.S. trip, Tsai defined the “status quo” as including “the accumulated outcomes of more than twenty years of negotiations and exchanges” between the two sides of the Strait. This timeline deliberately encompasses the 1992 talks between Beijing and Taipei. While she has not directly endorsed the 1992 consensus, Tsai has also not rejected it. Tsai has also emphasized her desire to “push for the peaceful and stable development of cross-Strait relations,” and stipulates that this should be done “in accordance with the will of the Taiwan people and the existing ROC constitutional order.” Moreover, Tsai has attempted to convince the US that under her leadership, Taiwan will be “a reliable partner...in ensuring peace and stability in the region.” All of her statements point to the fact that she is unlikely to pursue provocative policies such as Chen Shui-bian attempted to carry out when he was in power. Nevertheless, Mainland China deeply distrusts Tsai. A common saying among Mainland experts on Taiwan is that whereas Chen Shui-bian was an opportunist, Tsai is ideologically pro-independence and therefore, more dangerous.
Responsibility for maintaining a stable and cooperative cross-Strait relationship must be shouldered by both Beijing and Taipei. If Tsai is elected Taiwan’s next president, the two sides will need to agree on a new formulation that provides a basis for managing cross-Strait ties. The interests of both Taiwan and Mainland China will be best served by the adoption of a pragmatic approach that takes into account prevailing realities. Outright rejection by Tsai of the framework —including the 1992 consensus—that has enabled more than seven years of relatively low tensions and cooperation across the Strait would be damaging and counterproductive. Chinese unwillingness to find a compromise with the DPP that preserves cross-Strait stability while at the same time protecting Beijing’s bottom line of avoiding the risk of Taiwan independence would be similarly destructive and unwise.
The United States has deep and enduring interests in the preservation of stability across the Taiwan Strait and has an important role to play in shaping the policies of both Beijing and Taipei. When Chen Shui-bian was elected president in 2000, the United States played an instrumental role in encouraging Mainland China to adopt a “wait and see” policy and persuading Chen to provide early reassurances of his intentions. If the DPP returns to power, Washington can help prod both sides to find a modus vivendi that ensures cross-Strait communication channels remain open and pragmatic cooperation continues. U.S. efforts need to be stepped up now, before Xi Jinping’s positions harden further.
Bonnie S. Glaser is a senior adviser for Asia at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
Jacqueline Vitello is a Research Associate and Program Coordinator in the Freeman Chair in China Studies, CSIS.
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