Mdme. Tsai Ing-wen, the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) candidate for president in the 2016 Taiwan elections, came to Washington and appeared at the Center for Strategic and International Studies a.k.a. Pivot Central to make some remarks, chat with Kurt Campbell (proud pivot pappy), and do some Q&A moderated by the indefatigable pivot sherpa Bonnie Glaser (more on that later).
Tsai gave a good account of herself in her prepared remarks: competent, appealing, moderate, etc. She also provided a look at what a DPP wanted to do, wouldn’t do—and might be unable to do—if it gained control of the presidency, a pretty good bet given the comatose nature of the KMT’s presidential campaign.
For US audiences, perhaps the key statement was her reaffirmation of “the status quo” a.k.a. “no Taiwan independence” (go to the 17 minute mark).
Subsequently, Campbell did ask an interesting question about the cohesion of Taiwan society given its significant divisions, a sign to me that US policymakers are interested in the possibility that gridlock in Taiwan political institutions will lead to escalating “Sunflower” style street action—or perhaps a DPP gambit to piggyback on student unrest and declare that the unambiguous will of the Taiwan people expressed in mass demonstration compels an independence referendum pronto, sorry about that–and a messy opposing reaction. Tsai responded with the generic “democratic dialogue” kumbaya optimism which, I should say, I don’t quite share.
Campbell elicited Tsai’s statement on the South China Sea issue, very much CSIS’s obsession de jour. Tsai obligingly ticked off the talking points: peaceful, international law, UN conventions, & “as you said, freedom of navigation”.
Getting East Asian democracies to nut up and back the US SCS play is, post Shangri La, a diplomatic priority. On June 4, Danny Russel openly called on the Republic of Korea to support the US position, apparently as part of the public frontloading of expectations for ally fealty that has become an inseparable element of pivot promotion.
“The fact that, like the United States, the Republic of Korea is not a claimant, in my view, gives Seoul all the more reason to speak out because it is speaking not in self-interest, but speaking in support of universal principles and the rule of law,” [Russel] said.
It was the first time that a senior American official has publicly asked South Korea to play a role in the territorial dispute. The remark came ahead of a visit to Washington by South Korean President Park Geun-hye later this month.
Parenthetically, I find the look for “disinterested” supporters interesting. It is nice to get everybody to make approving noises in favor of nice things that they have no “interest” in expending blood & treasure to defend while the dominant regional power has made it clear it regards the same issue as an existential “core interest”.
Although I serially excoriate the media for falling for the “freedom of navigation in the South China Sea” canard (since the term has zero significance in terms of economic security or unhindered commercial passage that everybody is supposedly caring about), “military freedom of navigation” does have a genuine attraction to militaries that want to operate in the South China Sea. (I will cover the history of military freedom of navigation in the SCS in a subsequent post. Consider yourself warned!)
Taiwan has its own claim in the South China Sea, indeed the largest island claim (Itu Aba), which has the largest airfield in the Spratlys (for now), and its own fresh water. The ROC occasionally sends a submarine to Itu Aba, so it has an interest in military FoN in the SCS.
In fact, Itu Aba is in the throes of a $100 million construction project, something that Campbell obligingly forebore to mention despite the US demand that “everybody” cease island reclamation, and which Tsai naturally didn’t bring up. The ROC even had to hire a PRC ship to haul some caissons down to Itu Aba for the construction ! The port construction is supposed to be completed in a few months and then Taiwan will be able to dock vessels, military & otherwise, there as well, and further inject itself into the SCS mix.
An interesting element of the Philippine UNCLOS arbitration case against the PRC is that if the Philippines wins, it will also weaken Itu Aba’s presumptive claim to a 200 mile EEZ (an impassioned legal eagle in the Philippines heatedly accused a Philippine judge of treason for neglecting, perhaps for sound reasons of diplomatic calculation, to attack the Taiwan claim in the arbitration filing).
The DPP, as befits its Taiwan indigene roots, is relatively blase about Taiwan’s island claims (Kinmen, Matsu, Tiaoyutai, and, I would guess, Itu Aba), which it regards as excess baggage Chiang Kai-shek carried to Taiwan in 1949. So if the DPP wins, it will probably be relatively unconcerned if Itu Aba is collateral damage in the Philippine assault on the Nine-Dash-Line. Another matter for the KMT, of course, and I wonder if the KMT will try to play the “holy ground of the motherland” card in the election.
Mdme. Tsai’s Q&A didn’t go so smoothly. She had to field a question on the “1992 consensus”, a term the DPP detests, from a mainland journo.
The “1992 consensus” was basically an intentional and necessary muddling of the One China issue during meetings by the (KMT-controlled) Taiwan administration and the PRC in Hong Kong that enabled the development of cross-strait ties. As befits its Taiwan independence inclinations, the DPP scorns the idea that any successor government should consider itself bound to uphold that mush-mouthed whatever it is (there was no joint declaration; heck, there weren’t even parallel unilateral statements; something was stated verbally, sometime, somewhere: “On November 3 , a responsible person of the Communist Chinese ARATS said that it is willing to “respect and accept” SEF’s proposal that each side “verbally states” its respective principles on “one China.”).
The DPP would apparently like to consign the One China assumption of the 1992 consensus to the dustbin of history as a steppingstone toward independence, something that becomes politically easier with every passing year as more people identify themselves as “Taiwanese” and “Chinese” identifiers become more of an eccentric niche group.
However, p*ssing off the dominant regional power & biggest trading partner ($29 billion of a $140 billion total pie) is not the most obvious path to security, prosperity, & overall happiness.
Therefore, Tsai was quite energetic in her remarks about the unsatisfactory results of the current mainland-centric Taiwan economic model, the undesirability of further interdependence, and the need to “diversify” the Taiwan economy & shift it to “innovation” instead of manufacturing, and presumably toward the United States & Japan and away from the mainland. She also talked about Taiwan businessmen having to learn to handle failure, perhaps a backhanded warning that the mainland-manufacturing-linked sector should brace itself for some creative destruction if/when the DPP tries to implement its diversification strategy. Good luck with that.
Obviously the DPP is not quite ready to talk about unambiguously dumping the 1992 consensus and with it the economic relationship with the PRC.
So for the mainland, it’s red line time and “do you affirm the 1992 consensus” has become a tactic to put the DPP on the spot and force it either to alienate the middle-of-the-road segment of the electorate (and the US) with a prematurely provocative stance or, well, revel in the spectacle of its own weakness and hypocrisy in the eyes of its base.
So Mdme. Tsai threw some serious shade on the questioner, replying coolly that she had covered that issue in her remarks. Since she hadn’t really addressed the issue, this drew a chuckle from the audience.
But the next two questions were on the same topic & Tsai had to repeat her “already covered this” line more and more stiffly and by the end nobody was laughing.
And the last guy also asked some PRC-friendly question about Tsai’s plans to increase Taiwan military spending.
By my count, Tsai got one softball question, and four awkward questions from PRC journos and pundits who had apparently salted the room.
Unless Bonnie Glaser intentionally called on four pro-PRC questioners to put Tsai on her mettle, which I kinda doubt, she’s going to have to hit the books and figure out the names and faces of the friendlies and the not-so-friendlies before her next hosting gig.
My personal opinion: the PRC should be relieved, not dismayed if Tsai becomes president.
If the KMT stays in power, activists will feed the narrative that rad street activism is needed to save Taiwan from getting sold out, the DPP will endorse and exploit the demonstrations as a matter of sound political calculation, and the ineluctable polarization of Taiwan (and the increasing marginalization of pro-mainland opinion) will accelerate.
If Tsai is in power, on the other hand, she’ll have her hands full pushing her agenda while wrestling with the demands of the younger activists and coping with KMT obstructionism—and distracted from the vital task of trying to pull the island’s economy out of the mainland’s enormous gravitational field.