A former US diplomat says Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen’s inauguration speech may be a new starting point in cross-strait relations.

Tsai on Friday, in a speech mainly focused on domestic policy, said both sides “must set aside the baggage of history and engage in positive dialogue.”

China’s state-owned Xinhua reported officials as saying Tsai’s comments were "an incomplete answer sheet” and noted that she did not explicitly recognise the 1992 Consensus and its “core implications” [the idea there is one China].

Tsai had acknowledged the fact that a meeting took place in 1992 between Taiwanese and Chinese officials.

Richard Bush, who led the American Institute in Taiwan for nearly five years, says Beijing’s reaction to Tsai’s speech “is not as bad as some people thought it might be.”

“Perhaps that shows some good will,” he says.

Bush says that Taiwan’s delegation should still be able to attend the World Health Assembly.

“It is a good beginning, but it is only a beginning,” he says.

Moving towards clarity

Bush, a senior fellow at US think tank Brookings Institution, was speaking at an event in Taipei yesterday organized by the Lung Ying-tai Cultural Foundation.

He says that over the past year China and Taiwan’s new administration have been moving to locate a “mutually acceptable point on a spectrum of clarity and ambiguity.”

“Beijing has been demanding absolute clarity and President Tsai has preferred ambiguity,” he says.

Bush says from watching Tsai over the past year, “you can see movement down that spectrum towards some clarity.”

There may be now a new starting point for “continued interaction, for continued trust-building that through words and deeds each side reassures the other,” he says.

“The optimist in me hopes that this is what yesterday represented – a starting point.”

Signs of a downward spiral?

In response to media questions after the event, Bush said he would be concerned if Beijing made fresh moves to shut down the dialogue channels between Taiwan and Chinese diplomats or further restrict Chinese tourists coming to Taiwan.

“Those would be actions that might well make the situation worse,” he says. “I am not saying it is going to lead to conflict. It is just creating a worse atmosphere and a worse environment.”

While Bush was hopeful for a “positive spiral,” he noted there had been “similar downward spirals in the past.”

Still, just a day after Tsai’s speech there may be signs that relations are already souring. The South China Morning Post (SCMP) yesterday reported that “Beijing has threatened to suspend regular talks with Taipei as it steps up pressure on Taiwan’s new government to acknowledge the ‘1992 consensus.’”

SCMP quoted a State Council’s Taiwan Affairs Office spokesperson as saying, “Only by confirming adherence to the common political foundation of the 1992 consensus that embodies the one-China principle can cross-strait affairs authorities continue regular communication.”

Mistrust and the problems of an asymmetrical relationship

Earlier, former Taiwan Minister of Culture Lung Ying-tai questioned why Taiwan was treated like a student by Beijing.

Lung said Chinese leadership should instead show Taiwan, “How much democracy, how much human rights, how much freedom are you going to give your citizens.”

“And if you do enough of that, I will consider giving part of my heart to you,” Lung said – the statement was met with applause from the crowd of several hundred.

Bush says he has “puzzlement” at the asymmetry in the current relationship.

“The mainland is making demands on Tsai Ing-wen. She could have made demands on them but she chose not to.”

Beijing, Bush says, “does not fully understand the dynamics of Taiwan’s democratic system.”

“Its policies alienate Taiwan’s people rather than attract them.

“People in the mainland say that they want [Tsai] to make explicit concessions because they don’t trust her fundamental intentions. Does she not have, do Taiwan people not have, reasons to distrust the intentions of the other side?”

In the long-term, Bush says a key problem remains with the “offer” that Beijing is making to Taiwan.

“I don’t believe Taiwan having sovereignty is necessarily inconsistent with the goal of unification. But it is not consistent with one-country two systems.”

Bush says there are other models that could be looked at.

“There has never been any chance or opportunity to explore them.”


The South China Morning Post

The News Lens

Brookings Institution