By Nicole White
Rapprochement between China and Taiwan has dominated cross-strait headlines in the last two months, and the topic looms large as a factor in upcoming party elections. Expectation of a three-way race between incumbent Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) Chairman Su Tseng-chang, former DPP Chairperson Tsai Ing-wen, and former DPP Premier Frank Hsieh in the May DPP chairmanship election raises concern that inner-party competition could hinder the party’s efforts to forge a united front in the run-up to the presidential election. Although chair elections do not necessarily determine the party’s presidential nominee, the DPP chairperson will guide the party’s strategy in November’s seven-in-one local elections, which are seen as a preview of the battle between the ruling Kuomintang (KMT) and the opposition parties that will shape the presidential election 13 months later.
The DPP attributes its defeat to the KMT in the 2012 presidential election in part to a lack of public confidence in its cross-strait policy. Namely, the DPP’s refusal to acknowledge the 1992 consensus—the verbal agreement that there is “one China”—has been cited as a top concern for business leaders and workers who fear that their jobs depend on stable cross-strait relations. The DPP and the KMT have long differed in their approaches to the mainland, with the DPP adopting a pro-Taiwan independence stance while the KMT has endorsed “one China,” but says that the Republic of China rather than the People’s Republic of China is its legitimate government. The DPP legislative caucus whip’s proposal to suspend the “Taiwan independence clause” in the party’s charter highlights the DPP’s fundamental challenge in retaining “deep green” supporters while also appealing to swing voters.
In an effort to forge greater consensus within the DPP on its China policy, Chairman Su established a China Affairs Commission (CAC) in May 2013. The commission has overseen a series of dialogues with approximately 630 participants, including party officials, civic groups, academics, and experts, culminating in the recently released DPP 2014 China Policy Review. While the CAC’s paper asserts that the DPP will be flexible in how it engages with China and welcomes cross-strait economic and social exchanges, it continues to reject the 1992 consensus.
The published DPP China policy includes Tsai’s proposed “Taiwan consensus,” an approach that actively seeks consensus among the people of Taiwan on how relations with the Mainland should be conducted. The return to Tsai’s “Taiwan consensus,” coined in 2011 while she was DPP Chair and promoted throughout her presidential campaign, demonstrates a continuing lack of intra-party consensus on the issue, despite suggestions put forward by other party members. For example, Hsieh champions a “constitutions with different interpretations” initiative, but his recommendation was not incorporated into the strategy document. The vague nature of the DPP’s published China strategy suggests the party’s strong interest in downplaying its internal divisions to attract the widest possible support among the Taiwan public.
Upon release of the review, China’s Taiwan Affairs Office Director Zhang Zhijun told a press conference, “Taiwan would have a hard time finding an opening [for cross-strait engagement] if it could not keep up with the times and public opinion and if it failed to be open-minded.” In addition to Beijing’s anticipated criticism of the DPP’s China policy, Frank Hsieh and several other members within the DPP have warned that the DPP needs to change its China policy if it wants to return to power.
Still, President Ma’s dwindling popularity gives the DPP hope for achieving success in the local elections, where the party will focus its message on domestic issues such as employment, nuclear energy, and income disparity. Nevertheless, policy toward the mainland is likely to be an inescapable theme running through the chairmanship and local elections, if only in the background. By 2015, the DPP must fine tune its China policy in anticipation of the KMT’s likely interest in showcasing its successes on cross-strait relations as an important part of its presidential election strategy. The public will be comparing the DPP’s China rhetoric with the KMT’s steady, and recently accelerated, track record of unprecedented engagement with the mainland, resulting in 21 cross-strait agreements since 2008 and the first official government-to- government meeting in over six decades.
Indeed, the KMT and the mainland authorities have a mutual interest in further increasing cross- Strait cooperation going forward. The KMT believes such engagement will produce the kind of benefits that will help the party stay in power, while the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) seeks to secure progress under the “one China” framework in an attempt to prevent a DPP victory. Against this backdrop, might the DPP be willing to set aside its longstanding emphasis on protecting Taiwan’s independence option in the hope of a return to power that promises stable economic relations with Taiwan’s most important trading partner? Though the DPP is unlikely to ever adopt a cross-strait policy as forward-leaning as that of its KMT rival, the evolving China policy debate within the party may mean that the daylight between the two parties on relations with the mainland may continue to diminish in the future.