Consensus under Stated Differences: Commonalities in Ma and Tsai’s Cross-Strait Policies

In less than a week, the citizens of Taiwan will vote for the next president and parliament of Taiwan. Incumbent President Ma Ying-jeou of the Nationalist Party (KMT) faces a growing challenge from his opponent Ms. Tsai Ing-wen of the opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP).  Like other national elections before it, Taiwan’s relationship with China is the dominant issue in this race.  Most of the media and scholars  have focused on the differences between Ma’s and Tsai’s policy proposals towards China and little attention has been placed on what they share in common and what that implies for the future of cross-strait relations.

The debate centers on the so-called “1992 Consensus” or the “one China with respective interpretations” on which President Ma’s cross-Strait engagement policy is based. The Consensus is a tacit understanding reached by Beijing and Taipei in 1992 when former President Lee Teng-hui was in the office.  It allows both sides to accept that the concept of “one China” should serve as the basis for cross-Strait interactions, even though there are major differences as to what “one China” means in practice.  Following Ma’s endorsement of the three-no policy of “no unification, no independence, and no use of military force,” relations with the mainland have improved substantially. During the past three years, the Ma administration has deepened economic ties with China and has signed more than a dozen agreements with Beijing, including a landmark trade deal: the Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement (ECFA).  To the DPP’s way of thinking, the “1992 Consensus” merely sugar coats Beijing’s version of the “one China principle” to mask its intention to annex Taiwan.  Increased cross-Strait economic ties will worsen Taiwan’s dependence on China, undermine the island country’s independence, and lead to a political settlement on China’s terms.  Characterizing the “1992 Consensus” as a nebulous pact between Beijing and the KMT, Ms. Tsai has rejected it as the basis for cross-Strait interactions.  Instead, she has proposed a “Taiwan Consensus” as the basis for future cross-Strait interactions, with content to be decided via public discussions in the future.

Despite this apparent major difference, Ma and Tsai do share considerable common ground on this issue.  First, both candidates’ policy proposals aim to preserve and protect Taiwan’s sovereign and independent status in the international community.  Although Tsai and her followers portray KMT policies as eroding Taiwan’s sovereignty, Ma’s endorsement of the “1992 Consensus” is based on the premise that the Republic of China, the official name of Taiwan, is an independent and sovereign state.  Because the “1992 Consensus” allows both sides to provide their own interpretation of what “one China” is, Taipei leaders expect that Beijing will recognize Taiwan’s legitimate existence, or at least, would not deny its legitimate existence in the international community.  Second, both candidates show no intention of pursuing a plan for cross-Strait unification, especially under Beijing’s “one country, two systems” proposal.  Tsai is affiliated with the DPP which is the only major political party on the island that has a plank of pursuing Taiwan’s de jure independence.  She naturally rejects any prospect for Taiwan’s unification with China.  Ma’s endorsement of the “1992 Consensus” aims to shelve the issue of Taiwan’s sovereignty and his three-no policy of “no unification, no independence, and no use of military force” clearly states that his administration will not pursue cross-Strait unification but rather wants to stabilize the cross-Strait status quo.  Third, while Ma’s three-no policy aims to stabilize the status quo, for her part Tsai has dialed down the DPP’s stridency on pursuing Taiwan’s de jure independence.  Instead, she has argued that Ma’s proposal to negotiate a peace agreement with Beijing will change the status quo in China’s favor.  Both candidates thus see maintaining the status quo as the optimal choice for Taiwan.  Fourth, both candidates wish to break out of Beijing-imposed diplomatic isolation and expand Taiwan’s “international space.”  Voicing the island citizens’ frustration over Beijing-imposed diplomatic isolation, President Ma has called on Chinese leaders to stop isolating Taipei in the world community.  “Only when Taiwan is no longer being isolated in the international arena,” Ma stated in his 2008 inaugural speech, “can cross-Strait relations move forward with confidence.”

These commonalities between Ma’s and Tsai’s cross-Strait policies reflect the views of the majority of Taiwanese citizens.  A recent poll shows that 75% of the island citizens now view Taiwan as an independent and separate state from China.  Given this strong national identity, it is not surprising that Beijing’s “one country, two systems” unification plan has not been well received in Taiwan.  Polls conducted on the island have repeatedly showed that very few islanders consider Beijing’s plan acceptable even though more than half of Taiwanese citizens have a favorable view on the active cross-Strait exchanges.  However, the emergence of a Taiwanese national identity and the rejection of Beijing’s unification plan do not imply a strong commitment by the island residents to Taiwan’s de jure independence.  About 90% of the Taiwanese prefer maintaining the status quo now even though they differ in their views on the island’s long-term status.  They do not want to make an outright bid for de jure independence since they know that it would bring a violent response from China and would destroy both the economic prosperity and democratic way of life they now enjoy.  Therefore, both candidates’ policy proposals reflect strong voter preferences regarding Taiwan’s future relations with China: security, equality, autonomy, and sovereignty.

What does this mean for future cross-Strait relations after the 2012 presidential election?  It is no secret that Chinese leaders prefer Ma over Tsai as Taiwan’s next president.  During the past three years, Beijing has attempted to boost Ma’s popularity through various means such as “profit concessions” during the ECFA negotiations, hoping that a favorable political settlement could be reached between Beijing and Taipei during Ma’s second term.  Most observers believe that should Tsai win, cross-strait rapprochement is likely to stall and exchanges will be suspended.   If Ma wins his re-election bid, then Chinese leaders are likely to press for cross-Strait political talks, possibly even negotiating a peace agreement.  After all, Ma’s policies are considered the most responsive to Beijing’s position.  Given clear voter preferences and Ma’s expressed views, it will be unlikely for Ma in his second term to accept Chinese leaders’ terms.   If Beijing insists that Taiwan’s autonomy must be reduced to the status of Hong Kong or Macao, it would have serious adverse effects on the much improved cross-Strait relations.  The island citizens would interpret Beijing’s unyielding stand on its version of the “one China” principle as proof of its malice towards Taiwan.  The likely consequence is that the Taiwanese people would see no other alternatives but to pursue the island’s de jure independence whatever the cost.  Thus, Chinese leaders need to show their sensitivity to the island citizens’ political preferences and be creative in their negotiation with Taipei.

T.Y. Wang is Professor of Political Science, Illinois State University, Normal, Illinois, USA.  He is the Co-Editor of Journal of Asian and African Studies.  He can be reached at <>.