Taiwan – Softly, Softly, The President Navigates DPP and Cross-Strait Relations

Presidents who are not ceremonial executives generally come under scrutiny following the first 100-day honeymoon after inauguration, when the policy horizon is no longer paved with unencumbered goodwill from the electorate, legislator, or international community. President Tsai Ing-wen is no exception. Indeed, as the executive with majority party support of the erstwhile opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) in the legislature, the first woman elected to the presidency in Taiwan is likely to be closely watched to see if she is able to implement her policy agenda. That such success evaded the former president elected from the DPP, President Chen Shui-bian, whose agenda was stonewalled by the Pan-Blue majority in the legislature, likely compounds interest and attention on President Tsai. Yet, having a legislative-majority support comes with challenges: in particular, China is keeping close watch on if, when, or how the executive and legislature in Taiwan may adopt policies that veer away from the “one China” 1992 consensus. There is, then, much to appreciate in President Tsai’s ability to maintain her steadfastness that balances the demands of some of the core constituencies of the DPP on the one hand, and the demands and pressures of China on the other.

The DPP, like most parties, comprises factions, and a core bloc in the party favours independence. President Tsai’s previous run as presidential candidate for the DPP in 2012 drew on this core, and she lost out to former President Ma Jing-yeou in that race. The second time around in the 2016 elections, President Tsai was careful to apply the lessons learned: she has been steadfast in maintaining a cautiously-worded stance regarding relations with China that acknowledges the importance of the 1992 meeting that gave rise to the “one China” consensus but without explicitly recognising the one China principle.

The moderates in her party support the delicate stance: in the July 2016 party congress, a motion was made to remove the objective of Taiwan independence contained in Article 1 of the party’s charter. The new resolution, if passed, will change Article 1 to read: “. . . it is the party’s objective to establish cross-strait status quo. . .” However, at the same congress, the pro-independence faction also moved to change the country’s official title from the Republic of China to Taiwan, with the reminder that the DPP has legislative majority and control of the executive to effect changes. The second motion was also sent up to the DPP Central Executive Committee for review.

Possibilities such as the second motion are concerning to China, and China’s response has been to tighten the diplomatic screws while calling out President Tsai’s failure to acknowledge the 1992 consensus. There are concerns that China may tighten the economic screws, which will hurt Taiwan’s sluggish economy. As an indication, tourists from China have fallen by 30 percent since President Tsai’s inauguration, and that has made an impact on the tourist industry in Taiwan, as protestors highlight.

It is clear that this is no easy path to trudge: Taiwan’s unique standing in the international community is bound in its relations with China, so that cross-strait relations reverberate onto domestic agenda and the government’s policy-effectiveness. China has been very clear on what it needs to see from President Tsai, in order to maintain ongoing political peace and economic stability. Meanwhile, the electorate is beating the drums for a quick economic turnround, but is also resistant to painful reforms that are likely to be part of the turnaround. How well the President’s softly, softly approach, to the factions in her party, to the electorate, and to China, will clearly be tested thoroughly.

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