By the Numbers: The Challenges to Building Trust Between Taiwan and China

By the Numbers: The Challenges to Building Trust Between Taiwan and China
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The data shows an alarming partisan disparity in Taiwanese views on cross-Strait relations.

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One of the main challenges faced by President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) has been the steady deterioration of cross-Strait relations. From China’s unilateral breaking of a previous diplomatic truce to Chinese live-fire military drills on Taiwan’s doorstep, China has engaged in a campaign of limiting Taiwan’s international presence since Tsai swept to power in 2016.

Within Taiwan, measuring satisfaction with Tsai’s cross-Strait policy predictably follows party lines. Newly released data from National Chengchi University’s Taiwan’s Election and Democratization Study, consisting of telephone interviews conducted in September 2018, shows the extent of this variation.

Question 7 asks about satisfaction with Tsai’s performance specifically on handling cross-Strait relations. Recoding the answers to create a four-point scale (from not satisfied at all to very satisfied), partisan distinctions become clear, with Kuomintang (KMT) and pan-Blue supporters very dissatisfied compared to Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) and pan-Green coalition partners, who report high levels of satisfaction.

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A common KMT argument concerning the deterioration of relations mirrors that of the Chinese government, which Xi Jinping reiterated in a Taiwan-focused speech delivered yesterday. It blames strained cross-Strait ties on Tsai’s unwillingness to accept the commonly cited “1992 Consensus” – an ambiguous, highly disputed agreement by quasi-official representatives that both sides of the Strait belong to “one China.”

This so-called consensus, however, predates the entrenchment of Taiwan’s democratization and precluded political representation from the DPP. To concede to it now would handcuff a democratically elected Tsai to a vague commitment with little support among party supporters – especially as Beijing interprets the “1992 Consensus” differently than the large majority of Taiwanese political parties, including the KMT.

Furthermore, placing the blame solely on Tsai ignores the role of China in altering the status quo across the Strait.

To gain greater insight into Taiwanese perceptions of the underpinnings of cross-Strait relations, I argue one needs to move past simple evaluations of Tsai’s cross-Strait policies. After all, a Taiwanese public distrustful of the Chinese government would further justify caution in accepting Chinese demands and would likely influence perceptions of Tsai’s cross-Strait policy.

The same survey mentioned above asks in Question 17: “If 0 means you do not trust it at all, 10 means you fully trust it, how would you rate the government of China using a 0-to-10 scale?”

Overall, Taiwanese appear distrustful of the Chinese government (a 3.48 average on the scale), with clear variation across the main two parties and coalitions. The results further show a tepid response even among Blue identifiers, suggestive of the limitations of trust-building with an authoritarian regime.

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Credit: Reuters / TPG
Even KMT supporters don't seem to trust Xi Jinping all that much.

Read More: Xi Calls Taiwan Independence 'Dead End,' Touts Success in 'Frustrating' Efforts

Additional analysis breaks down responses based on their position on a six-point tondu scale, with “unification as soon as possible” as 1 and “independence as soon as possible” as 6. Revealingly, this poll shows that only 15 percent of Taiwanese respondents support unification with China, either “as soon as possible” or as an ideal to work towards in the future.

When measuring support for (or against) unification versus trust in the Chinese government, the variance is quite stark. Those most supportive of unification are understandably more trusting of the Chinese government, averaging a 6.56 on the 11 point scale, while those most supportive of independence average just under a 1 on the same scale. Such trust variation does not bode well for a China wanting Taiwan to confirm the “1992 Consensus” or similar efforts at trust-building across the Strait.

Additional analysis finds a strong negative correlation between trust in the Chinese government and support for Tsai’s cross-Strait policies.

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While some politicians in Taiwan mirror the Chinese government’s position that a return to the “1992 Consensus” is crucial to warm cross-Strait relations in 2019, the survey data here suggests a much deeper challenge on both sides of the Strait.

The Tsai administration must find a means to frame the challenges of cross-Strait relations on Chinese intransigence. This took a major step on Tuesday, Jan. 1 when Tsai unveiled her “Four Musts” policy framework for improved cross-Strait relations.

For its part, the Chinese government must find ways to build trust by appealing to Taiwanese that are not inherently supportive of unification.

Read Next: Tsai Ing-wen Puts Forth 'Four Musts' for Positive Cross-Strait Relations

Editor: Nick Aspinwall (@Nick1Aspinwall)

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