Foreign Policy Blogs

Tsai Ing-wen and the Need to Balance Cross-Strait Relations

Tsai Ing-wen waves to supporters at her party's headquarters in Taipei on Saturday after her victory in Taiwan's presidential election.

Tsai Ing-wen waves to supporters at her party’s headquarters in Taipei on Saturday after her victory in Taiwan’s presidential election.

Diplomatic ties between Taiwan and mainland China have been experiencing multiple hurdles since the new Taiwanese president Tsai Ing-wen won the election this past January, after eight years of gradual restoration of trade and cultural exchanges under Ma Ying-jeou’s presidency.

A Message Through Political and Economic “Cold Peace”

This June, mainland officials unilaterally suspended all major communication mechanisms with their Taiwanese counterparts. A spokesperson for mainland’s Taiwan Affairs Office (TAO) announced it would  cut off the official exchanges channel between them and mainland Affairs Council (MAC), as well as between mainland’s Association for Relations Across the Strait (ARATS) and Taiwan’s Straits Exchange Foundation (SEF). His decision leaves both sides with no outlets for direct government communication in case of a crisis.

In the meantime, Beijing is consciously reducing its cross-Strait tourist numbers and trade volumes. The numbers of tourist groups visiting Taiwan from mainland dropped by 30% since this past May, and Beijing plans to further cut down the total tourist number even further from 3.85 million in 2015 to 2 million by the end of this year.

Like-minded soft trade sanctions, such as canceling cross-Strait trade deals, also created stress on Taiwan’s economy. From January to July this year, the total cross-Strait trade volume dropped by 9.8%, with exports from mainland to Taiwan dropping by 12.7%, according to mainland’s Ministry of Commerce.

Meanwhile, Beijing sent Tsai a clear message of dissatisfaction by “further squeezing [Taiwan’s] international space”. The Gambia, an African nation formally connected with Taiwan, resumed diplomatic ties with Beijing in early March.

In addition to poaching Taiwan’s few remaining diplomatic partners, Beijing has successfully persuaded Cambodia, Malaysia, and Kenya to send Taiwanese suspects residing in those countries back to China for trial this year. Comparing this to China’s past history of non-interference in Taiwanese citizens’ legal affairs overseas under President Ma, Beijing is clearly flexing its muscles since Tsai Ing-wen’s election

Historic Ma-Xi meeting focuses on "1992 consensus"

A historic Ma-Xi meeting focused on the “1992 consensus”.

A Historical Document

Most cross-Strait policy changes were made by mainland officials directed by Chinese President Xi Jinping, with the clear political objective to apply pressure on the new Taiwanese President Tsai. Why has Beijing’s policy towards Taiwan shifted so dramatically from Ma to Tsai?

The key to understanding this deterioration on cross-Strait relations goes back to the 1992 Consensus—a mutual agreement between Kuomintang (KMT) and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in 1992. In it, both sides agreed on the “One-China principle”, that Taiwan is a province of China, with “different interpretations” of which party is the legitimate governing body of China.

As the current leader of DPP, to endorse the 1992 consensus would be considered political suicide for Tsai Ing-wen. Consequently, she failed to endorse the 1992 Consensus after she won the Taiwanese presidential election this January. In her interview with Liberty Times (Tzu-yu Shih Pa) shortly after the election, she addressed the “discussion of the 1992 Consensus” as “a historical fact and both sides had a common acknowledgement to set aside differences and seek common ground” yet did not support the actual substance of the document.

The Challenges Ahead for Tsai

Unlike Tsai, her predecessor President Ma Ying-jeou was never asked to clarify his stance of the “One-China Principle” during his presidency. Despite Tsai’s multiple attempts to extend olive branches to Beijing, Xi Jinping has never recognized her as a credible partner of Beijing. Although Tsai clearly outlined her cross-Strait policies on a “no surprises, no provocations” policy stance, she is facing much more systematic obstacles than her predecessor.

One of the challenges for President Tsai is the long history of mistrust between Beijing and DPP, the party she currently chairs. Mainland politicians are prone to associate DPP with “pro-independence”, “separation”, and other labels of the like. The infamous separatist “Two-state Theory” put forward by the former President, DPP leader, Lee Teng-hui is still fresh in the memory of mainland politicians. On the other hand, Beijing shares a mutual trust with Ma Ying Jeoy and the KMT he led, built on years of reconciliation and cooperation. Without trust, calculated ambiguity won’t lubricate the cross-Strait relations for President Tsai like it did for Ma.

Tsai has also had to face obstacles as the first female president of Taiwan. She has dealt with sexist criticism directed at her gender and marital status. Maj. Gen. Wang Wenxing, a Chinese military official at China’s Academy of Military and an acting member of ARATS, described Tsai in the International Herald Leader as “extreme” and “emotional” because “she was never married, and therefore lack of the burden of love, family, and children”. Though his article was taken down shortly after due to broad criticism from the public, the fact that it was approved by a CCP-affiliated publication exposed some mainland officials’ hostility against this “single woman politician”.

Calculated ambiguity was sufficient to maintain a healthy cross-Strait relationship during Ma’s Presidency. But if Tsai wishes to keep vital diplomatic ties from deteriorating, she needs to find more creative ways to maneuver between Taiwan’s domestic calls for independence and Beijing’s pressures to endorse the 1992 Consensus.



Wenjun Zeng

Wenjun Zeng is a Chinese national focusing on the regional security and trust-building in the Asia-Pacific. She has worked with Chinese, Japanese, Korean, and U.S. diplomats and scholars to create Track II dialogue platforms on Asia-Pacific security issues. She is also an analyst at Wikistrat, a crowdsourced consultancy that identifies and provides solutions to global risks.

Wenjun earned her Bachelor in Arts degree in Psychology and International Studies from University of Wisconsin-Madison, and her Master of Arts degree in Politics from New York University.