What you need to know
Tsai Ing-wen came under fire for not recognizing the '1992 Consensus,' but Xi's speech last week proved that her strategy was the correct one.
Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) had a rough 2018, and 2019 started off in a similar manner. After ushering in the new year with a New Year’s Day address to the nation, Tsai had to reply the next day to a strong speech by Chinese leader Xi Jinping calling for Taiwan to accept “unification.” She then had to face a public challenge on Jan. 3 from several Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) figures calling for her to step down for the 2020 presidential election, which she also rebutted.
Xi’s “unification” demand might be worrying, but it also vindicates Tsai’s tough stance towards China.
Tsai has faced heavy criticism for refusing to acknowledge the “1992 Consensus,” which China demands that Taiwan’s government agree to. Taiwan’s previous president Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) had no problem agreeing to the so-called consensus, but Tsai has declined to do so since taking power in 2016. As a result, China has punished Taiwan by refusing any official contact with Taiwan, snatching away five of Taiwan’s diplomatic allies, pressuring international companies to cease any recognition of Taiwan, and obstructing Taiwan’s participation in international forums. It has also reduced the number of Chinese tour groups bound for Taiwan, which has seen the number of Chinese visitors to Taiwan drop steadily since 2016.
All of this has resulted in Tsai and her government being heavily criticized and was seen as a major reason for why the DPP was beaten so badly in last November’s regional elections. Several Kuomintang (KMT) winners, such as the new mayors of Kaohsiung and Taichung, eagerly proclaimed that they would agree to recognize the “1992 Consensus” in order to regain trade and investment from China.
The “1992 Consensus” is controversial because it is not clearly understood and is often misstated. It refers to a supposed understanding made with China in which both sides agreed Taiwan is part of “one China” after a bilateral meeting in that year. The KMT, which was in power then, constantly claims that the “1992 Consensus” allows for different interpretations and that the “one China” that both China and Taiwan would be part of is the Republic of China (ROC). However, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has always claimed that Taiwan is unequivocally part of China, which is clearly the People’s Republic of China (PRC). The “1992 Consensus” has never been written down on record and KMT official Su Chi (蘇起) even admitted to making up the term in 2000, long after the 1992 meeting.
In short, the “1992 Consensus” is not even an actual consensus as both parties do not agree on the same thing.
Xi’s demand for Taiwan to accept “unification” made this especially clear as he called for this to happen under the “one country, two systems” framework, which is currently used with Hong Kong and Macau. What this means is that the “unification” of Taiwan and China would result in Taiwan losing its sovereignty and becoming like Hong Kong, which few Taiwanese people seem to want.
Agreeing to the “1992 Consensus” thus means agreeing that Taiwan is part of China. Tsai has been very adamant about not doing so and she deserves to be commended for her awareness.
This has been lost on many Taiwanese, with some believing the KMT’s explanation, while a significant number of respondents to a poll even thought the “1992 Consensus” means Taiwan and China are two separate nations! As amusing as that seems, it is also frightening how mistaken some Taiwanese are with regards to the “1992 Consensus,” given that that is the basis of why China continues to claim Taiwan. Now, Taiwan is coming around to the real meaning of the “1992 Consensus” and there are signs that Tsai might be regaining public support.
Xi’s speech also exposed the hollowness of the KMT’s claims that the “1992 Consensus” allows for different interpretations. The KMT, potentially rattled by the naked exposure of its claims, took some time to give a reply.
The KMT eventually answered back halfheartedly by claiming that Xi’s speech was not in line with the true spirit of the “1992 Consensus.” But it is wishful thinking by the KMT that they could correct or influence the CCP or Xi Jinping. After all, Ma Ying-jeou actually met with Xi back in 2015 so one would think that if he had wanted to clear up the “1992 Consensus,” he had the perfect opportunity to do so then.
Tsai should also be lauded for her willingness to open official dialogue with China, which she reiterated in her Jan. 1 speech, but only on several conditions, which she termed the “Four Musts,” including that Taiwan must be treated as an equal. While it is hard to see China, under Xi Jinping, agreeing to these conditions, it enables Taiwan’s status to be made clear.
Meanwhile, Tsai faced down a challenge from within her party successfully, after the DPP elected Cho Jung-tai (卓榮泰) over Michael You (游盈隆) as its new party chairman on Jan. 6. You has been very critical of Tsai and supported the DPP figures who had put out the letter urging Tsai not to run for re-election in 2020. The election of Cho means there will be fewer chances of tension within the party as it is unlikely Cho will hinder Tsai from running in 2020.
Of course, Tsai still needs to do a better job on domestic issues such as improving labor law reforms which have failed to satisfy workers, energy reforms, and progressive causes. When it comes to national security and dealing with China, however, Tsai is absolutely right and that was made explicitly clear on Jan. 2.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of The News Lens.
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Editor: Nick Aspinwall (@Nick1Aspinwall)
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