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Richard Bush on the impact of Taiwan’s new president on cross-strait relations

Richard Bush is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, holds the Chen-Fu and Cecilia Yen Koo Chair in Taiwan Studies, and is director of its Center for East Asia Policy Studies (CEAP). He also holds a joint appointment as a senior fellow in the Brookings John L. Thornton China Center. CEAP is a center for research, analysis, and debate to enhance policy development on the pressing political, economic, and security issues facing East Asia and U.S. interests in the region. He spoke to Christina Yoh CMC ‘18 on May 27, 2016.

Photo and bio source: "Richard C. Bush III." Brookings. The Brookings Institution, 2016. Web.

 


What were China’s expectations of President Tsai’s inauguration speech? Did her speech meet these expectations?
 
The expectations that China laid out were that she explicitly accept the 1992 Consensus and its "core connotations" — that the geographic territories of both the Chinese mainland and Taiwan belong to China. This was Beijing’s way of getting at the desire of some people in Taiwan of being totally independent from China. Tsai Ing-wen spoke to each of those issues in her speech, but she did not do so in the clear-cut way that mainland officials hoped. She talked about them in a more ambiguous way. You knew what she was referring to without her saying the words and without a clear-cut commitment. In spite of the fact that Tsai was not as clear-cut as China seemed to want, it seemed to be okay for this point in the process. She was less ambiguous than she'd been before, so that reflected progress on her behalf. The reason I think it was good enough for the key leaders in China is that Taiwan went ahead and successfully sent a delegation to the World Health Assembly on May 23. PRC spokesman had imposed the same condition as before (the one-China principle) on Taiwan's participation in WHA. It sounded like what she said would not be satisfactory and that Taiwan's WHA delegation wasn't going to get to go, but it happened. 
 
Before her inauguration, China took several steps that were perceived as unfriendly. Do you think these steps have actually backfired?
 
Yes, I do, and I think some people in China understand that. But those steps may have been taken as warnings that Tsai should do a little bit more than they thought she would. Sometimes steps are taken in China, the United States, Taiwan and other places not because the top leader decides to for whatever reason, but because lower level people just think they're doing their jobs according to the rules that they have to follow. One of the episodes I think you're referring to is the transfer of some of Taiwan's criminals to China, and that was because China believes crimes that affect people in the PRC should be persecuted within the PRC. The public security officials and the embassy in Kenya were doing what they thought their job was. Even though these things drew a lot of media attention in Taiwan, they didn't stop what seemed to be a decent outcome on May 20. 
 
Tsai is the first female to be elected as president of Taiwan. Other than the fact that she is a woman, what makes her different from previous presidents? How did she gain support?
 
She's a little bit younger than each of the presidents so far. Lee Teng-hui was born in 1923, the presidents we've had since were born around 1949-50, and she was born in 1956. She started out as an academic and a lawyer focusing on trade law. President Lee spotted her and realized that she was really smart, so he brought her into the government as an advisor to work on Taiwan's negotiations concerning the World Trading Organization and cross-strait relations. When Chen Shui-bian became president, he appointed her the chair of the Mainland Affairs Council. She was also a legislator and also served as a Vice Premier for a while. She thus made a transition from academia to working in the executive branch. Then the DPP lost very badly in 2008, and she was elected chairperson of the party. She had to do a lot of work in rebuilding the party and making it more competitive.  She was moving into a whole new world, no longer acting as an executive branch official but as a politician. She herself ran for president in 2012, and it was a close race. 
 
What does having a female president say about Taiwan and its political system in general?

She's not the first female president in East Asia because we've had them in Philippines and Korea. All of these societies are patriarchal, particularly traditionally, so what this reflects is that Taiwan is becoming a more cosmopolitan and modern society. A lot of the prejudices that used to exist don't, so she was able to become the head of the party, its presidential candidate, and now the president. This is not the first time a woman has played an important role in the DPP; there was Annette Lu, who was the Vice President under Chen Shui-bian for eight years. 

Representatives from the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) have previously held firm positions on the independence  of Taiwan. What is Tsai Ing-wen’s personal stance on Taiwan’s relations with China?
 
First of all, I'd say that most people in the DPP understand that as much as they would like to have an independent Taiwan that it's very difficult under the circumstances because of the attitudes of China and the U.S. They don't overtly give up the goal, but they generally have not pursued it vigorously. Even for Chen Shui-bian, it was sometimes difficult to determine how much of his policy decisions were aimed at the goal of Taiwan independence and how much was aimed at domestic politics. Any DPP president has to maintain the support of the party base wherein some members are strongly in favor of Taiwan independence. What a lot of DPP politicians do, including Tsai, is to point to a resolution that the party adopted in May 1999, which fudged the issue of Taiwan independence. She has responded ambiguously, and so far, it has been acceptable to her supporters. 
 
How does China plan to respond to Tsai’s refusal to acknowledge the the 1992 Consensus?
 
This is a moving target. It's only been six and a half days since she was sworn in and gave her inaugural address. So far, it seems that they've accommodated somewhat by letting the WHA delegation go. I think that what has already happened and what will continue to happen is an interactive process. The best that one can hope for is that each side will take positive steps toward the other, not very big steps but gradual ones, so they can build trust. The heart of this is the suspicion, of at least some people in China, that Tsai really is in favor of Taiwan independence and that she's ideologically committed. Some think that even if she says things that are reassuring, they can't trust her. She's not going to say exactly the words that China wants to hear, so there needs to be a more incremental process, which has already started. 
 
What would be the best response from China to the Tsai presidency? Do you think Beijing has made serious mistakes so far? 
 
They're probably going to keep up the rhetoric about things that Tsai has to do. It looks like certain modes of interaction between the two sides are going to be suspended, but what would be okay is if everything else that has developed in terms of interaction mechanisms over the last eight years would continue: business, exchanges, and so on. It's the status quo minus a little bit. 
 
Though President Ma Ying-jeou improved cross-strait relations through trade, signing of the ECFA and tourism, people of Taiwan remained distrustful of China. What is Tsai’s greatest challenge in gaining and maintaining support from the general public in the coming years?
 
It was the last two years of Ma's term that his China policy came under attack; he did get re-elected in 2012 after being unpopular for four years. But I think the problem was that the trade deals that the two sides were pursuing — which over the long term would've been in Taiwan's interest — did affect the economic interest of certain groups because they were opening up markets to Chinese competitors just as China was opening up its market to Taiwan competitors. One task for Tsai is to revive those agreements and re-tool them a little bit, and get the legislature to pass them. One challenge she will face is to do trade liberalization and investment liberalization, not just with the mainland but also with Taiwan's other trading partners. China can exert influence to block that, but doing those other trade arrangements is very important for Taiwan in terms of ensuring that it has a competitive economy because these will force changes and reform. There's a balancing act; she's having to deal with China, her own public, the business community, and the United States. 
 
What opportunities and challenges does Tsai's presidency create on the international stage? What about for the U.S?
 
One point of concern in Taiwan is that China may steal away some of Taiwan's diplomatic allies. That would be a psychological shock to Taiwan. Though China has allowed Taiwan to participate in the WHA this time, China might shut down any future access or role for Taiwan in most international governmental organizations. China could also put pressure on existing international non-governmental organizations to restrict Taiwan's participation in certain ways. The United States is not such a problem for Taiwan because we feel it should participate in the international community. But a lot of these organizations are run by consensus, and China has influence and can block Taiwan no matter what the U.S. does.

Author: 
Christina Yoh