Pei-Yu Wei is an intern for Asia Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.
The inauguration speech of Tsai Ing-Wen, the new president of Taiwan, on May 20, drew much attention from audiences both at home and abroad who hoped to glean information about the future path that Taiwan’s China policy might take. Tsai, the island’s first female president, is the leader of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), a party known for its more independent stance vis-a-vis China, and Beijing has so far regarded her rise with wariness. But how indicative are Taiwanese inaugural speeches of policies down the line?
The inaugural addresses of Taiwan’s democratically elected presidents have always touched on the issue of China, from broad principles for engaging with Beijing to detailed policies. The cross-strait relationship is not only a critical challenge faced by administrations throughout the years, but also important to regional stability. However, a look back at the speeches of Taiwan’s four democratically elected presidents suggests that inaugural addresses are not necessarily a useful guide to the eventual policy pursued.
Lee Teng-Hui, Taiwan’s first democratically elected president and then-chairman of the ruling Kuomintang party, noted in his 1996 inauguration speech that reunification was the common goal of both the Republic of China and the People’s Republic of China. Lee appeared to follow this policy until 1999, when he declared that bilateral ties between Beijing and Taipei should be redefined as a “special state-to-state” relationship. During his term, Lee also supported “Taiwanization,” a movement to build an identity that emphasized Taiwan instead of China or Japan, and, more contentiously, was originally part of the independence movement.
Unlike Lee, Ma Ying-Jeou, who swept to victory in 2008 on a platform of establishing greater economic ties with China, did not stray from the pledges he made in his inaugural address. After a landslide victory, Ma addressed the nation and highlighted the importance of better ties between Taiwan and China. In his inaugural speech, he emphasized that the status quo reflected mainstream opinion, and that the two sides should interact based on the 1992 Consensus, a compromise of “one country, different interpretations [on both sides of the strait].” Ma also promised to normalize the cultural and economic relationship, and to open up direct flights between China and Taiwan. Even though the implementation of direct flights occurred later than scheduled, Ma did consistently follow the 1992 Consensus, the importance of which he stressed once again in his second inaugural address in 2012. Even during periods when his insistence on closer ties with Beijing, such as attempting to pass a contentious trade agreement through parliament, saw his approval drop to 9 percent in 2013, he continued to adhere to his vision.
Chen Shui-Bian, Ma’s predecessor, however, strayed from his originally more centrist position on the China-Taiwan relationship. As the first DPP president-elect, it went without saying that he attracted much skepticism from China. In his inauguration speech in 2000, Chen famously put forth the “Four Nos,” a pledge that as long as Beijing had no intention of using military action on Taiwan, his administration would not do four things: declare Taiwanese independence, change the national title from the Republic of China to the Republic of Taiwan, include a doctrine of special state-to-state relations with China in the Constitution of the Republic of China, or promote or hold a referendum on unification or independence. Just two years later, however, Chen announced in a telecast to the World Federation of Taiwanese Associations meeting that “Taiwan and China occupy the two sides [of the Taiwan Strait], and that there is one country on each side.” This drew criticism from both China and the United States; both countries considered it a departure from Chen’s earlier inaugural promise. Chen further antagonized both states when he condemned the “One China Policy” a year later.
Of the three presidents before her, Tsai’s situation most closely mirrors that of Chen. Like Chen, she faces a balancing act between the dangers that China poses and the demands of the electorate. Chen may have been more ideologically motivated than Tsai, and he also faced a KMT-majority legislature and different domestic situation when inaugurated. However, it is important to consider that, like Chen, Tsai was elected on a platform that in part advocates a cautious approach to cross-strait relations, and may face pressure from her party, which holds a majority in parliament. Furthermore, Tsai will undoubtedly confront greater pressure from a populace that is not only increasingly skeptical of China, but also identifies less and less as Chinese. Good, or at least stable, relations between Beijing and Taipei will thus require a give-and-take process.
In her own inauguration speech, Tsai was careful to demonstrate that she will not do anything that would veer far from the status quo. She said she would follow the Constitution (which claims mainland China as territory of the Republic of China), but did not reference the 1992 Consensus, an omission in line with the majority opinion in Taiwan. A poll conducted this April showed that around 52 percent of those surveyed opposed basing bilateral relations with China on the 1992 Consensus, while over 60 percent said that they could not accept Beijing pressuring then-president-elect Tsai into accepting the Consensus. Beijing’s current strategy of pressuring Tsai to give in and agree with the 1992 Consensus, through actions such as holding military drills along its southeast coast, undoubtedly will backfire, as heavy-handed strategies against Taiwan usually do. This will make it even more unlikely for Tsai to come to a compromise on the Consensus.
Tsai’s omission shows that she is willing to follow mainstream opinion on cross-strait relations, even when it may anger Beijing. Tsai has demonstrated that she is willing to toe the party line for now, so to speak. However, if there is not enough incentive for her to follow her inaugural promises, past experiences show that she may stray from her centrist position.