Cross-Strait relations emerging as a campaign issue

After numerous false starts, and the largely unwarranted salience of marginalia like piggybanks and persimmons, the issues that will determine the presidential campaign are finally coming to the fore. There are three main arenas; the economy, a range of (related) social justice issues, and relations with China. Thus far, the campaign has been rather subdued, as the candidates focused to a great extent on themselves. Ma struggled with his low approval ratings, broader economic woes and articulating his programs for the next four years. Tsai Ing-wen quietly and effectively sought to establish her presidential bona fides. There is little doubt that she has succeeded in establishing herself as a legitimate candidate, with the requisite personality and policies; to such an extent that gender is no longer an issue. Now, to use the obligatory war metaphor, the battle has commenced, and relations with China are emerging as a battleground.

Tsai Ing-wen has run an effective campaign so far, but if relations with China become salient, her nebulous “Taiwan consensus” is vulnerable. The “Taiwan consensus” is a proposal for the establishment of bi-partisan consensus, as a pre-requisite of further agreements with China. It sounds innocuous enough, and the argument that the “1992 consensus” is an illegitimate foundation for conducting cross-Strait relations because it was essentially a deal between the CCP and a non-democratically elected KMT, resonates with a lot of Taiwanese voters. It is especially resonant with those voters who have not gained from ECFA and other agreements enacted by Ma, and those voters who are alarmed by the speed of Ma’s detente and the lack of checks (given the KMT’s legislative majority). Tsai’s challenge is to explicate how a Taiwan consensus can be achieved (given that opposing positions are enduringly intractable) and to assure voters that the presence (or absence) of a “Taiwan consensus” could be the basis of engagement with China.

President Ma has not run a good campaign so far, and is undoubtedly embattled. Numerous missteps, inconvenient economic data and the unanticipated blowback from the “peace accord” proposal, have seen Ma lose a 10 point poll lead in less than two months. The campaign has been casting around for a keystone campaign issue, but haven’t found it. At this point, trailing Tsai in most polls and fearful of the unpredictable Soong-effect, Ma’s best bet may be to go on the attack; a strategy that was evident in the first TV debate. While Ma has been widely derided for bringing up the Chen Shui-bian administration in the debate, concerns about the DPP’s ability to govern could resonate with voters (of course Ma doesn’t mention the structural conditions that hamstrung Chen).

But you would be hard pressed to find a DPP candidate less like CSB than Tsai, so there are limits to this strategy. Another strategy is to attack the Taiwan consensus idea–which I think is the way Ma will go. Interestingly, after having to step away from cross-Strait relations following the unpopular peace accord proposal, Ma’s best strategy right now might be to make China salient after all. Both of the “consensuses” are conceptual abstractions that many voters cannot properly engage with; but Ma can, with justification, argue that the 1992 consensus is a proven basis for engaging China, whereas the Taiwan consensus is, as yet, not.

Tsai Ing-wen has thus far espoused a moderate position on cross-Strait relations. She has experience as head of the Mainland Affairs Council under Lee Teng-hui and is, in general, proposing deceleration rather than negation of already enacted cross-Strait policies. But what cannot be adequately addressed is how Taiwan can engage China without accepting, or coming close, to the latter’s bottom line 1992 consensus. This is a legitimate point of attack for Ma. On the other hand, since back tracking from the peace accord proposal, Ma hasn’t said how far he plans to go if he wins another 4 years. I don’t expect him to either. Instead I expect him to ‘show some love’ for Taiwan (he has the latitude to say more things like ‘Taiwan is a country’ during the campaign), showing that love for Taiwan is compatible with the 1992 consensus. How many voters would buy into that I don’t know, but I expect China and associated identity issues to come out now that we’re reaching the sharp end of the campaign.

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