What if…? Taiwan-China relations under a DPP-led government

In just a few more days, the curtain will finally rise for the much-anticipated Presidential and Legislative elections in Taiwan. Speculations are rife whether the DPP candidate Tsai Ing-wen will be able to successfully challenge the incumbent Ma Ying-jeou. Most observers predict that it will be a close race, and I personally believe that the DPP does indeed stand a good chance – but alas, in face of Taiwan’s notoriously unreliable opinion polls, such speculations are not very rewarding.

Still, many people have voiced their concerns about the possible consequences for Taiwan-China relations in the vent of a DPP victory. For the most part, the forecasts have been uniformly gloomy: the general logic assumes that a DDP-led government would be unwilling and unable to accept the ambiguous “92 consensus”, which would lead to a complete breakdown of  Taiwan-China negotiations, causing havoc to Taiwan’s business interests on the mainland and in the Asia-Pacific region, while the temperature in cross-Strait relations would drop to new freezing point. In recent weeks, scores of leading pan Blue-politicians and representatives of Taiwan’s business elite have capitalized precisely on this catastrophic scenario, warning about the dire consequences if the DPP should “rock the boat” in cross-Strait relations. I believe that those concerns are largely unwarranted. Indeed, I even propose that a change of government in Taiwan could actually be beneficial to a healthy development of cross-Strait relations.

First, I consider it highly unlikely that Beijing would be so foolish as to carelessly cast away the achievements of cross-Strait integration, which both sides have labored so industriously to achieve during the past four years. The costs, both in economic and political terms, would be too enormous to be considered seriously. From the many integration projects in the world (the European Union, for one), we know that integration is incredibly difficult to achieve, but also extremely hard to undo. In many fields, the liberalization policies have fundamentally altered, for better or worse, the basic rules of cross-Strait interactions. Economic players on both sides of the Strait have adapted to the new rules, and restructured their behavior accordingly. Technically, it would of course be possible for Beijing to “turn back the clock” – indeed, the ECFA agreement explicitly provides an “exit clause”. Such a rash act, however, would cause major upheavals in the delicate fabric of economic ties between the two sides, and any hope of eventually building up political “trust” would be rendered utterly remote.

Furthermore, we can safely assume that China’s policy makers in charge of cross-Strait policies are no fools, and have already drawn up contingency plans for the eventuality of a DPP victory. So far China has remained remarkably low-key on the topic, which I take as a sign that Beijing wishes to keep its options open.

Second, it is quite possible that in future cross-Strait negotiations, a DPP-led government might even be able to achieve more benefits for Taiwan. This effect, known as “Schelling’s paradox of weakness” to political scientists and well-documented in the European integration process, assumes that a government whose choices are constrained by a highly skeptical electorate can actually gain more leverage in its negotiations with other states. Beijing knows that it will need to provide more incentives, both economically and politically, to convince the majority of DPP-supporters of the wisdom of further cross-Strait integration – thus enabling a DPP-led government to carry on the process. The same logic, incidentally, applies to the thorny question of Taiwan’s political status: the leadership in China is fully aware that the DPP cannot and will not accept the “92 consensus”, and that no amount of pressure can force the DPP to yield. Hence, in order to safeguard the achievements of the past, China might be compelled to grudgingly – and maybe tacitly – accept an alternative formula which can satisfy both Beijing and the supporters of the pan-Green camp, and which will allow both sides to save face.

Of course, I may be wrong on both accounts. It is also possible that China will decide to take a firm stance on what it regards as the political principle of territorial integrity, and hazard the consequences of a breakdown in cross-Strait exchanges. In that case, however, we should ask ourselves whether the whole project was worth the trouble in the first place. Taiwan, after all, is a democratic society, and the question of how to frame the country’s de-facto sovereignty is still up to the voters to decide. If the integration processes across the Taiwan Strait should indeed prove unable to cope with this simple fact of life, then it might be better discarded rather earlier than later. The longer the process lasts, the more painful it will be when it finally runs aground – which it must inevitably in the long run (unless we assume that the KMT will remain in power forever).

In my opinion, the impact of a DPP victory for cross-Strait relations will be manageable. In the economic realm, at least, exchange will continue on the basis of what has been achieved to date. The political process, in contrast, might be temporarily impaired, as Beijing may be reluctant to enter into new major agreements, and pin its hopes on a return-to power of a more China-friendly government in the future instead. Such a stumbling block could actually be a good thing, since it will provide both sides with an opportunity to take a step back, explore new possibilities for a mutual understanding, and even come up with ideas on how the mechanism of integration might be improved.

As a true German, let me finish on a metaphor from car-manufacturing: the misfiring of an engine can be a very burdensome thing and lead to the breakdown of the whole machine. At the same time, a temporary malfunction should remind us that no mechanism can forever run smoothly, but requires constant maintenance and care. On very few occasions, it might even lead us to insights on how a completely new, and better, engine may be designed.

Stefan Fleischauer is Co-Managing Director of the European Research Center on Contemporary Taiwan (ERCCT) at the University of Tuebingen. 

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