By John Xie

Taiwan's main opposition party has elected a reform-minded chairman, which could mean the party will reconsider its longstanding support for closer ties with China.

The new chairman of the Nationalist Party, or Kuomintang (KMT), is Chiang Chi-chen (江啟臣), a 48-year-old lawmaker who pledged during his campaign to take a harder line against Beijing's influence.

The KMT lost both the presidential and parliamentary elections in a landslide defeat to the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) in January, largely because of its pro-China stance. After the election, many younger generation members within the more than 100-year-old political party pushed the KMT to chart a new path, which would likely result in a setback for Beijing's quest to gain control over the self-ruled island.

No congratulations from Chinese president

China's Communist Party leaders have always worked to keep close ties with Taiwan's KMT, but there are signs that could be changing.

In an apparent calculated snub, Beijing for the first time ever did not send a congratulatory telegram to the KMT after it elected the new chairman. In the past, the KMT always received some warm words from the Chinese president in his capacity as chairman of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).

Last Saturday, China's Taiwan Affairs Office, in its acknowledgment of the election of Chiang, reminded the KMT that opposing Taiwan independence is "the common basis" of the two parties.

"The Chinese mainland expects the Kuomintang (KMT) led by its new chairman, Chiang Chi-chen, to make efforts in maintaining peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait," said Zhu Fenglian, spokesperson for the administrative agency under the State Council.

The 1992 consensus

Analysts believe that the CCP's failure to send a congratulatory message to Chiang could be related to the stance he takes on the "1992 consensus." The phrase refers to a 1992 agreement between semi-official envoys from Beijing and Taipei that stated both sides of the Taiwan Strait belong to "One China."

For more than 20 years, the ambiguity of the diplomatic phrase has allowed the two sides to build economic and social exchanges while avoiding clashes over Taiwan's sovereignty. A rejection of the phrase, which Chiang hinted he might abandon during the campaign, could upend Beijing's decades-old framework for building ties with Taipei.

Beijing has refused to engage with any Taiwanese government that does not commit to the 1992 consensus. It says the root cause of the deterioration in cross-strait relations under the current Democratic Progressive Party (DDP) administration is its refusal to recognize the consensus.

"It's hard to predict what Beijing would do if the KMT abandoned the 1992 consensus," said Richard Bush, an American expert on China affairs at the Brookings Institution, a research group.

He said the KMT "should keep in mind that Beijing has always seen the 1992 consensus as a formula for conducting non-political issues."

Another leading American expert on China-Taiwan relations, Bonnie Glaser, the director of the China Power Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, also said that the KMT must tread carefully if it reformulates its stance on the 1992 consensus.

"But it should seek to develop a new position that appeals to the majority of the people in Taiwan, otherwise it will not have much chance of regaining the presidency," Glaser said.

Party reform

After officially taking up his new post Monday, Chiang, the youngest chairman in the party's history, did not mention the 1992 consensus and suggested the party needs new ideas.

"The defeat of national elections does indeed highlight that our party lags behind the times in many aspects and urgently needs to catch up through reform and innovation," Chiang said in his inaugural speech.

It is not yet clear how much the party could change its China-leaning stance under the leadership of Chiang, who holds a Ph.D. in international relations from the University of South Carolina.

Glaser said the KMT needs to reform its policy toward China, "so that it will be seen as a party with a forward-looking vision rather than a party that represents the past," she said in an email to VOA.

Tang Shao-cheng, a political scientist from National Chengchi University in Taipei, said it looks like Beijing is taking a "wait-and-see approach."

He said that the KMT's traditional stance has always provided a buffer between the Chinese Communist Party and Taiwan's DPP and tensions could increase if the KMT changes its position on China.

"Without it [the KMT], the two sides could be headed for a showdown, facing off each other with toughness," Tang said.

The News Lens has been authorized to publish this article from Voice of America.

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