The KMT Is a House Divided

The KMT Is a House Divided
Photo Credit: CNA

What you need to know

The spectacle of the KMT veering between China and the U.S. for improved relations is more than a story of simply being swayed by criticism from the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) or the press.

The Kuomintang (KMT) has passed a resolution to seek formal diplomatic ties with the United States. The move was viewed by some as a surprising about-face in light of the KMT’s actions of only a month ago, when the party reaffirmed their stance on the 1992 Consensus and planned a delegation trip to China.

The spectacle of the KMT veering between China and the U.S. for improved relations — success with one would preclude success with the other — is more than a story of simply being swayed by criticism from the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) or the press. The sudden shift can be understood from two angles: seeking an accommodation with the DPP’s control of the discourse on China, and the KMT Party Chairman’s Johnny Chiang’s struggles to win over KMT members to his vision to bring electoral success to the party.

“Suing For Peace” at the Straits Forum

On September 8, the KMT announced that former President of the Legislative Yuan Wang Jin-pyng would lead the KMT delegation at the annual Straits Forum set to take place on September 19. Following the announcement, China Central Television (CCTV) reported that Wang’s mission was to “sue for peace,” which quickly provoked the KMT to withdraw its planned delegation.

江啟臣出席華僑節大會
Photo Credit: CNA
KMT Party Chairman Johnny Chiang, October 12, 2020.

The KMT has attended the annual Straits Forum for the past 12 years. Though publicized as an apolitical exchange between civil society groups in Taiwan and China, the Forum has served as an unofficial platform for the KMT and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) to meet.

The Straits Forum has also been a symbol of stability between Beijing and Taiwan. Given that the Forum allowed the KMT to conduct meetings with representatives of Beijing, the KMT drew legitimacy from this institution, promising voters that only they were considered a legitimate negotiating partner by the CCP, especially during the Ma Ying-jeou administration.

But this argument no longer has the same effect it once had, as the political terrain has shifted to the DPP’s terms. The question most are asking isn’t, “Who is best at maintaining good relations with China?” but rather, “Who is best at maintaining Taiwan’s de facto independence and defending against Chinese aggression?”

An Opportunist Gambit

Chairman Johnny Chiang’s ascension to leadership of the KMT was widely viewed as a move to abandon or at least downplay the party’s pro-China reputation. His appointment was the first that Beijing failed to congratulate, likely due to his reformist view on the 1992 Consensus. The party also established committees that were put to work in revising its stance on cross-strait relations.

However, Chiang’s efforts are consistently thwarted by pro-China party elites. The KMT’s eventual backtracking to stick to the 1992 Consensus during the National Congress on September 6 only shows how Chiang has failed to drive the party closer to an ideological center on a crudely drawn pro-independence-versus-pro-China spectrum.

It was only the public fiasco surrounding the Straits Forum delegation that tipped the balance to more pro-U.S. opinion in the KMT, greasing the wheels for the passage of the pro-U.S. resolutions.

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Credit: Reuters / TPG Images
Taiwan's Foreign Minister Joseph Wu.

While the DPP has recently owned the pro-U.S. party label, taking credit for visits from high-profile officials from the States and passing an executive order to open imports of U.S. pork, the party has not openly sought the establishment of formal diplomatic ties. Foreign Minister Joseph Wu has explicitly said that Taiwan will not be seeking formal ties with the U.S. at the moment.

This provided an opportunity for the KMT to reintroduce its pro-U.S. stance, at least in the Legislative Yuan, which Chiang has more sway over. Regardless of whether these resolutions are connected to the boycotting of the Straits Forum or a “Plan B” for the KMT to cop out from failed entreaties to the CCP, the party has made a gambit to win back the favor of public opinion.

The KMT Going Forward

The KMT’s indecisiveness speaks of the party’s current weak position as it struggles to shed its pro-China labeling and jump on the bandwagon of pro-U.S. sentiment in Taiwan.

On the other hand, the U.S. has been dealing with the DPP. If the KMT were to attain a relationship with the U.S., it could negotiate for formal ties as the Republic of China, which is not only in line with all the party’s current ideologies at large, but also its historical position. However, all this is based on the premise that the KMT can befriend the U.S., which would require the party to take a further step away from the CCP, an action that the KMT is still hesitant to take.

The motivation behind the KMT Caucus’s sudden pro-U.S. resolutions remains uncertain, but it aligns with Johnny Chiang’s early promise to redesign the party. How far the KMT can go along this new route is an open question, as Chiang’s previous promises of reforming fell short after coming under fire within his own party.

Regardless of how the KMT arrived at this crossroads between furthering the CCP relationship and beginning to foster its friendship with the U.S., the KMT should take into consideration the political climate, its electoral prospects in 2022, and above all whether it can commit to a singular direction as a party united.

READ NEXT: OPINION: Does the DPP Victory in Kaohsiung Mark a Return To Normal?

TNL Editor: Nicholas Haggerty (@thenewslensintl)

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