COM 01/2016

Interview with Prof. Chin-peng Chu and Prof. Richard Weixing Hu on prospects of Cross-Strait relations in the light of the January 2016 Elections in Taiwan

The Cross-Strait relations between mainland China and Taiwan is one of the major conflict areas of peace and stability in Asia. It has been one of the topics dealt with at CPG’s international conference on “Peace and Stability in Asia – Conflict and Cooperation” on 17-18 December 2015 (see report above). On the sidelines of the conference CPG could talk to Prof. Chin-peng Chu and Prof. Richard Weixing Hu about their assessments of the Cross Taiwan Strait relations in the light of the predicted government shift in Taiwan after the upcoming presidential and parliamentary election in Taiwan on 16 January 2016.

Chin-peng Chu, former Taiwanese Minister for Research, Development and Evaluation, is Professor and Jean Monnet Chair as well as the Director of the European Union  Research  Center  at the Department of Public Administration, National Dong Hwa University, Hualien, Taiwan (ROC). His research areas cover Cross-Straits    Relations    and    Mainland China Studies as well as globalization and local governance Richard   Weixing   Hu is Professor of Political Science at the University of Hong Kong. His teaching and research areas include global political economy, East Asian international relations, and China’s foreign relations. He has published widely in leading academic journals.

Q: Prof. Chu, Prof. Hu, the presidential and parliamentary elections in Taiwan is close at hand. What do you expect as the outcome?

Chu: According to the latest polls in December the presidential candidate of the Democratic Progressive Party (DDP), Tsai Ying-wen, will win the presidential election obtaining more than 50% of the votes. The candidate of the ruling Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) is supposed to receive only about 20%. For the parliamentary election it is expected that the two major contestants, the DPP and the KMT will receive 28-37% and 19-33% respectively. That means that the elections will result in a DDP government led by Tsai Ying-wen as president with either a majority of the DPP or a KMT led majority in the parliament.

Hu: For the KMT it means that they will have no chance to remain in government for a third term of office. One of their main objectives in the election is to secure enough seats in the parliament to prevent being politically marginalized in Taiwan politics. So they need to secure something like 40-50 seats in the parliament. If they could have this critical mass of seats they could at least block any of the DPP’s movement to make constitutional amendments or to make major changes on Taiwan’s mainland policy or other public policies.

Q: What impacts on the Cross-Strait relations do you anticipate in the light of the predicted election outcome and the shift in government in Taiwan?

Chu: In my opinion there are three levels to differentiate with regards to this question, namely a higher, medium and lower level. The first level of Cross-Taiwan Strait relations concerns the higher level in international politics which will much more intense. On the medium level the status quo for economic exchange programs ties should be continued by the new government in Taiwan. If the DPP wins the election in January she also must take these actions because this is the mainstream of the Taiwan public opinion. They need a stable and peaceful environment. On the third, lower level, I think the DPP government will continue to encourage the people to people policy between mainland China and Taiwan.

The “coldpeace”,as Prof. Hudescribed in his presentation the likely relation between mainland China and Taiwan for the period to come after the election, would depend to a great extent on the question how Tsai Ying- wen would address the Cross-Taiwan Strait relations in her inaugural speech May 2016. It is not possible for her to follow Chen Shui- bian’s doctrine of Taiwanese independence as that will be very tough and will cause many conflicts.

So, I assume she will not do that. In her speech I think she must overcome the problem of how to come to an agreement on the ‘1992 consensus’ because for Tsai Ying- wen the ‘1992 consensus’ is yet not agreed on and not recognized as she created the ‘two states theory’ in 1999 in the time of former President Lee Teng-hui. The utmost for her to accept is to a ‘agree to disagree’- principle expressing that Taiwan has its one understanding of the ‘One China’-principle and does not agree with mainland China’s definition of the ‘One China ‘-principle. And I think even Ma Ying-jeou’s interpretation of the ‘1992 consensus’ and ‘One China’ in the form of ‘two areas under the Republic of China Constitution’ is quite different from Tsai Ying-wen’s envisioned Cross Straits concept.

Hu: As I said in my presentation, DPP is very likely to return to power. So this will be the third power shift since the late 1990s in Taiwan. There will be three scenarios if the DPP returns to power: The first scenario will be: the DPP administration under Tsai Ying-wen’s leadership will continue Ma Ying-jeou’s current peaceful development policy in Cross-Taiwan Strait relations. The second scenario will be to go back to Chen Shui-bian’s policy and to have a more confrontational relationship with mainland China. I think none of these two scenarios is likely because – given what Tsai Ying-wen have said – she wants to pursue something different from Chen Shui-bian. So, the likely course will be something what I called a ‘cold peace’ situation across the Taiwan Strait.

There are various elements making up a ‘cold peace’ between mainland China and Taiwan: First, it is not a genuine peace like the one in the Ma Ying-jeou period because the DPP cannot change its fundamental policy about Taiwan’s national identity and they will not support any actions leading to eventual unification with mainland China. So, this is their bottom line. It is not possible for them to continue or completely take over Ma  Ying-jeou’s  political  legacy to have a peaceful development across the Taiwan Strait. However, they would not go back to confrontational policies either, as it is not in Taiwan’s interest. There are high economic costs and international, structural constraints from the US and the region on their policy. It is not possible for Tsai to become ‘Chen Shui-Bian no. 2’,  no  way. So, what the ‘cold peace’ means is: First, the relationship will deteriorate because the two sides cannot have a common ground or agreement on what is the political base to develop this relationship.

Second, this deterioration will not reach a dangerous level that makes the Cross-Strait relations completely collapse.

Third, there will be a lot of uncertainties and risks. The situation will very much depend on how the DPP will make the move and how Beijing will react. And there will be a testing period. Beijing will wait and see how the DPP will come clear on its political discourse about what is the direction of the Cross-Strait relations policy of the DPP, whether they can come out with something close to the ‘1992 consensus’. The ‘1992 consensus’ was basically used by the KMT as a very ambiguous way to accept that there is only one China. But this ‘One China’ is up to individual or independent interpretations by either side. This ambiguity gives a lot of room for maneuvers to the both sides. They can continue to engage each other in economic relations and social interactions.

But the DPP  cannot accept this framework because this is based on the ‘One China’ principle and framework. They will not directly or explicitly say that they can accept ‘One China’. They cannot go that far. But Tsai Ying-wen has so far already said that the DPP government will try to maintain the status quo. So, what is the status quo? The current status quo is based on the ‘1992 consensus’ containing a mutual assurance between mainland China and Taiwan that Taiwan is not going for independence. So, this will create a lot of uncertainty. Both sides will struggle on what kind of discourse will come up. Will DPP’s new discourse be accepted by Beijing or not? If Beijing says that this new discourse is not good enough it will affect the future economic and exchange relations. But I think Tsai Ying-wen is pragmatic. She does not want to see the complete collapse of exchanges and economic ties with mainland China. She has said that she will continue to build up the accumulated result of the last eight years and that she will respect the Republic of China’s constitutional order. But that is a very vague language and it is unclear whether this is good enough for Beijing to accept. So this is a big uncertainty.

Another uncertainty is the social movement in Taiwan. The social movement in Taiwan like social movements in other places is not created by a particular party and is more independent from party politics. However, it could be a big factor for the existing systems. We can see that from the Sunflower movement that has been very disruptive. It has interrupted Ma Ying-jeou’s mainland policy process and in some way benefitted and played into DPP’s hands. Whether in the future the DPP can ride on this social movement once it is in power is questionable. In 2006/2007 a social movement brought Chen Shui-bian  down on anti-corruption themes. We don’t know if the DPP in power can manage, control or manipulate the social movement. That is a big variable. So far, the DPP managed to control the Sunflower movement well. They manipulated it in its own way. But in future you don’t know.

Another uncertainty relates to international relations. Especially, mainland China has a lot of leverage. It controls the economic relations. It can also narrow and contain Taiwan’s international space. So there may be a diplomatic war again. And there are also international constraints from the US and other countries.

So there are a lot of uncertainties. We don’t know now. We need wait at least a few months and see what Tsai Ying-wen is up to. A good indicator is to look in her inaugural speech on May 20, 2016.

Q: How has mainland China reacted so far on the likely shift of government in Taiwan?

Hu: This is not the first time Beijing has to deal with a new government in Taiwan. It is not the first time Beijing has to deal with a DPP government. Beijing is anticipating that DPP will return to power, so they have already begun to start with something trying to framing the DPP’s future mainland policy. Prof. Chu’s presentation dealt with Xi Jinping’s and Ma Ying-jeou’s recent summit meeting in November. Beijing knew that the DPP would win and they tried to use this summit meeting to send a clear signal saying that the last eight years’ peaceful development is based on the political foundation that both sides accept that there is only one China. Although it is not quite expressly, but implicitly, mainland China would expect that the DPP will not deny the fact that there is only ‘One China’ in the world. Taiwan must accept this framework.

So, both leaders Xi Jinping and Ma Ying-jeou have repeatedly said that in the last eight years the largest legacy is the ‘1992 consensus’ and both leaders have made a statement that they support and endorse this consensus. This has created some kind of framing effect for future leaders. What Beijing is basically saying to Taipei is that if you don’t follow this and try to overthrow or undermine this political foundation, there will no peace and we cannot continue to deal with you. If you follow this we can continue to work with you. We can even arrange a summit meeting between Xi Jinping and Tsai Ying-wen and everything is possible.

So, Beijing basically lays out in a pro- active way: this is the choice for the new president whether you take it or not. Now, this is something Beijing already did. The next step Beijing will do is to wait and see what Tsai Ying-wen is really up to. They will watch carefully to look at Tsai Ying-wen’s statements and policies and actions, even at her personnel appointments for the cabinet. These are the things they will watch carefully. Another aspect in China’s stance towards Taiwan under Tsai Ying-wen’s leadership is learning from the past lessons. They will not give a very long period for a try-out because in Chen Shui-bian’s first term they waited and remained inactive for about a year and a half and then Chen Shui-bian changed his mind and policy. This time they will probably give a shorter period of ‘probation’ and they will really put pressure on Tsai Ying-wen. And if she doesn’t go by these rules there will be forthcoming troubles, possibly diplomatic war or military pressure or international space narrowing.

Chu: I totally agree to Prof. Hu’s statement about mainland China’s stance towards Taiwan in the wake of the government change. I think Ma Ying-jeou’s greatest contribution is that he was not a troublemaker. This has stabilized the peaceful environment for both sides.

I also do totally agree that Beijing knew that Tsai Ying-wen will win the election. They had to prepare to face this new situation in Taiwan. I think Beijing doesn’t want to repeat the Chen Shui-bian experience. So, the most significant signal of the Ma-Xi meeting was to create a mechanism or a platform for whoever will be elected the new president in Taiwan. But if this redline would be cross crossed, I think this would be very serious. Beijing has patience to wait and see.

Tsai Ying-wen on her side has also to face diverging views within the DPP with regards to the perception to Taiwan’s position. For example Hsieh Chang-ting, the former Chairman of the DPP, is a key person supporting to uphold the ‘One-China under the ROC constitution’ policy. Last year five scholars’ debated at the Taipei Forum a framework for peaceful Cross- Strait relations which is supposed to keep peace and stability for both sides. I think this is the most moderate policy for the DPP to be observed in Taiwan. So, I think this will be acceptable for Beijing. But the debate is still going on. Tsai Ying-wen is aware of Taiwan’s domestic different positions concerning the prospective Cross-Strait strategies. She should integrate all the differences at the election speech in May 2016.

Q: What could be constraints of domestic politics for Tsai Ying-wen’s presidency in general and with  regards to  Cross Straits relations?

Hu: There  will  be  several  domestic constraints. I think the no. 1 constraint is the economy. She needs to have a good policy to bring the Taiwanese economy back on track to continue steady growth because  under the current negative environment Taiwanese economy is hurt, is slowing down and a lot of business already moved out of Taiwan. Almost 1 Mio Taiwanese went out Taiwan to mainland China. They live there, invest there and have their factories and enterprises there. And so Taiwan’s economic ties with mainland China are very close. Ma Ying- jeou’s tried to bring Taiwanese business men (taishang) back and ask them to invest back in Taiwan. But what happens is that these Taiwanese business men from mainland bring the money back but they don’t invest in enterprises and factories. They invest in the real estate and stock market which jacked up the housing prices. But this creates social problems. Young people, I have heard, cannot afford rising housing prices. It doesn’t help Taiwanese economy to grow.

So, Tsai Ying-wen will face the same problem and she additionally has to deal with the economic slowdown, globally and in mainland China where the economy also slows down and the  opportunities for business shrink. How to re-boost the economy will be the no 1 challenge to the Tsai administration. But there also other social conditions deteriorating and that is the hotbed for social movements. If you do not address these problems the young people will go back to the street. They could be anti-Tsai Ying-wen as they have been anti- Ma Ying-jeou because a social movement is a double edged sword. So, this would be another domestic challenge.

Another constraint lies in the identity issues and public  attitude towards Cross- Strait Relations which are keeping shifting in Taiwan, especially young people nowadays have more negative views about Ma Ying- jeou’s Cross-Strait exchange engagement.

Chu: Perceptions and awareness of Cross- Strait relations among the people are growing. In my presentation I mentioned that Xi Jinping should maybe accept a new generation of Taiwanese people. This new generation is not like the previous one. This generation is politically involved, and the students are used as tools to gain political interest and political power as reflected by the challenges the Ma Ying-jeou administration had to face in the past three years with regards to a number of unpopular policies such as those in the fields of controversial issues of Cross-Strait relations, electricity power price, stock tax policy and pension reform. The Sunflower movement is surely dominated by students but it includes also many other sectors in society. The complaints against the Ma Ying-jeou administration came together and caused the big defeat for the KMT in November 29 local elections last year.

Tsai Ying-wen has now reached the peak of her popularity. However, she appears sometimes too optimistic with regards to her party’s policies concerning areas such as nuclear safety, energy sector and the reform of the parliament. The problems Ma Ying- jeou faced will come back again. And the Taiwanese people will watch carefully about what Tsai Ying-wen has promised and what she will deliver. I expect challenges and critics will come from the future opposition as well as from social movements.

Hu: Tsai is likely to win over 50 percent in the presidential election. If she does this she will have a robust mandate. At the same time the expectations will be very high. To live up to these expectations will be another challenge. If she does not deliver, the disappointment will be equally high.

Thank you very much Prof. Chu and Prof. Hu for the interview.

This interview was conducted by Dr. Duc Quang Ly, CPG.