Will Taiwan’s Election Strain Cross-Strait Relations?

Professor Robert S. Ross, Professor of Political Science at Boston College and Fairbank Center Associate, examines the pressure that Taiwan’s election may exert on cross-strait relations.

Tsai Ing-wen’s election as president of Taiwan is a major triumph for Taiwan’s democracy. This is Taiwan’s third peaceful democratic presidential succession since it held its first presidential election in 1996. It is also a major victory for the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), which has recovered from its significant defeats in the 2008 and 2012 presidential elections and which now, for the first time, holds a majority in the Taiwan legislature.

Tsai-Ing Wen on the front cover of TIME Magazine

At the same time, however, the Tsai presidency poses a major challenge to Taiwan’s relationship with the mainland and, thus, to its economic stability. For the past 8 years, cross-strait stability and cooperation has been based on mainland and Taiwan acceptance of the “1992 consensus,” in which both sides agreed that there is only one China, but disagreed over which government is the government of China. On this basis, the mainland agreed to extensive cross-strait economic and political cooperation with Taiwan and it has exercised considerable restraint in constraining Taiwan’s international diplomacy.

Tsai’s personal history and her political reliance on the pro-Taiwan independence base of the DPP constrain her from acknowledging the 1992 consensus or from explicitly stating that there is one China. For the mainland, Tsai’s silence on the one-China issue represents a retreat from Taiwan’s prior position, a unilateral revision of the agreed upon foundation of cross-strait cooperation, and setback to the mainland’s long-term objective Taiwan unification with the mainland. The mainland has made clear that under these revised conditions it will not maintain the status quo in cross-strait relations. Although it has signaled that it will not create military crises or use force against Taiwan, Beijing has made clear that unless Tsai finds a way to reaffirm Taiwan’s one-China position, it will reduce support for Taiwan’s participation in international diplomacy and it will curtail cross-strait government dialogues. Most important, it will use its economic leverage to constrain cross-strait trade and investment and thus undermine Taiwan’s economy and the Tsai presidency, contributing to a DPP defeat in the next presidential election.

Tsai understands that her presidency significantly depends on a revitalization of the Taiwan economy and that this depends on Taiwan’s access to the mainland market. Whether she can make the political decisions necessary to maintain cross-strait cooperation remains to be seen.