Tsai must clarify cross-Straits position

Updated: 2015-05-28 07:49

By Dennis V. Hickey(China Daily)

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On May 29, Tsai Ing-wen, chairwoman of Taiwan's Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), will begin a 12-day trip to the United States. The DPP candidate for Taiwan's 2016 leadership elections will meet with US government officials, lawmakers, scholars and others with an interest in East Asian affairs.

In February 2015, Tsai declared that "now is the time to build a new political culture with transparency." But her positions toward many of the most important issues of the day remain opaque and unclear, especially her plans for handling cross-Straits relations. This makes officials in Washington nervous.

The DPP's track record represents another concern. After the DPP came to power in 2000, the island's relations with both the Chinese mainland and the US deteriorated. The tensions may be traced to a series of "surprises" initiated by former Taiwan leader Chen Shui-bian. These "bombshells" included inflammatory statements about "Taiwan independence" and controversial calls for island-wide referendums and a new "Constitution". US officials viewed the moves as irresponsible, provocative and destabilizing. By late 2004, the media described Chen as President George W. Bush's "least favorite democratically elected leader" and Taiwan's media was rife with rumors that Bush had cursed him. That same year, political analysts claimed that "US-Taiwan relations are at their worst in the past 20 years". Relations continued on a downward spiral until 2008.

Following Kuomintang candidate Ma Ying-jeou's election victory in 2008, Taipei returned to the 1992 Consensus, an arrangement whereby Taiwan and the Chinese mainland accept the principle of "one China", but each side holds its own interpretation of what it means. By 2014, a total of 21 cross-Straits agreements had been signed. Analysts claimed that cross-Straits relations were at their best since the two sides were split by the civil war in 1949.

Despite differences with Beijing over other issues, Washington has warmly welcomed the cross-Straits rapprochement. Support for warming cross-Straits ties is even enshrined in the 2010 National Security Strategy of the US. It is also clear that US-Taiwan unofficial relations have not suffered as a result of the relaxation in tensions across the Taiwan Strait. Ma claims that this shows that "for the first time in history, the US can maintain peaceful and friendly ties with both Taiwan and the mainland simultaneously." US officials appear to agree with this assessment. During a recent Congressional hearing, Daniel Russel, US assistant secretary of state, went so far as to testify that, "US-Taiwan unofficial relations have never been better."

As Tsai begins her visit to America, US officials cannot help but wonder whether she plans to move cross-Straits relations forward or if she will become a troublemaker who embraces the failed policies of Chen Shui-bian. The DPP rejects the 1992 Consensus, and when asked how she plans to approach relations with the Chinese mainland, Tsai has usually preferred to duck the issue. Recently, however, Tsai has begun to claim that she will "maintain the status quo." Ma Ying-jeou describes this vague approach to cross-Straits relations as little more than "slogans," while Eric Chu, Kuomintang chairman, blasts it as "gobbledygook to take people in." In an attempt to defend herself, Tsai now claims that her policy is "the same as that of the United States." Can this be true?

If Tsai is genuinely prepared to embrace the US policy toward Taiwan, this is headline news. After all, during a recent visit to Beijing, President Barack Obama publicly declared that the US does not support "Taiwan independence." And like other US presidents, he has also promised to abide by the US' longstanding one-China policy.

Will Tsai make clear her position toward cross-Straits relations during her visit to the US? Or will we only hear more "double-talk" and "gobbledygook?" If Tsai is unwilling or unable to provide clear answers to key questions concerning cross-Straits relations, the US should publicly voice reservations about her ability to maintain peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait - just as it did during her previous campaign. Given the US' interests in the Western Pacific, the stakes are too high for the US to remain silent.

The author is director of the Graduate Program in Global Studies at Missouri State University.

(China Daily 05/28/2015 page9)