Panama switches – What does it mean for Taiwan?

Beijing’s strategy towards a Tsai Ing-wen administration that refuses to accept the “1992 Consensus” (a way for Taiwan to acknowledge “one China” that enabled productive relations and a ‘diplomatic truce’ under Ma Ying-jeou) is to incrementally increase pressure. Since Tsai assumed the ROC presidency in May 2016 Beijing has broken off direct communications, reduced tourist numbers, blocked Taiwan’s WHA observership, arrested a Taiwanese rights activist etc. This is pretty low level pressure and cross-Strait economic interactions and non-governmental & p2p exchanges continue. Given the intense integration of the two economies, punishing Taiwanese businesses in Taiwan would also hurt the Chinese economy, at a time when there are already domestic economic pressures. But going after Taiwan’s allies has very little downside for China. It symbolizes Taiwan’s diplomatic marginalization and in relative terms is good value (and unlike blocking Taiwan in WHA, there’s no blowback). I expect the PRC to continue targeting Taiwan’s allies and to capitalize on any opportunity to encourage a split (the Vatican is the big prize, but also the most complicated due to the Catholic Church in China).

Panama itself is a special case for Taiwan. With the exception of the Vatican, which has extra symbolic value because it is the only European ally left, Panama was Taiwan’s most important ally. Relations were established more than 100 years ago and was Taiwan’s first FTA partner in 2003. It is also an influential country among Taiwan’s allies in Central America and the Caribbean, where half of all their allies are located. The implications are largely symbolic, but this is an arena in which symbolism is very important. The real fear is that Panama’s switch may prompt others to follow. Since half of Taiwan’s allies are in Central America and the Caribbean, this is a real concern and one that underpinned Tsai’s visit to the region almost as soon as she was inaugurated last summer.

The Tsai administration has focused on domestic issues and maintaining as stable cross-Strait relations as Beijing will allow, and although Tsai’s approval ratings have declined substantially, it hasn’t been due to her China or foreign policy. Until now, dissatisfaction with Tsai has mainly been due to her faltering domestic agenda, and the slowdown/shutdown of cross-Strait relations has not harmed her that much. Taiwanese are very conscious of their international marginalisation, and the symbolism of an important ally is a hit to ‘national dignity’ and ‘respect’ that are highly salient in political discourse. There is little sign that this will stop or reverse national identity trends though: the massive increase in Taiwanese-only identifiers has occurred in the same period that Taiwan has lost one third of its diplomatic allies.

If, however, a number of allies were to switch, it may bring pressure to bear on Tsai’s China policy. It remains to be seen how public opinion would react to a (hypothetical) succession of diplomatic switches. Tsai’s main domestic opposition (the KMT, which supports closer and friendlier relations with China) is currently weak and not in position at the moment to bring much pressure to bear on Tsai. Public opinion on Taiwan’s marginalisation is important, but Taiwanese also appear to accept that some things are out of the government’s control. The fact is, the decision to switch is up to the respective allies, who make their own cost-benefit calculations. Taiwan has invested heavily in maintaining and servicing its diplomatic relationships, but sometimes the PRC is a more attractive proposition.

Public opinion in Taiwan is pretty clear: Taiwanese want peaceful and productive economic relations with the PRC but they prefer to maintain their functional autonomy and do not want political unification. On one hand, PRC pressure and military option is necessary to keep “Taiwan independence” off the table as a realistic option. On the other, moves which appear to Taiwanese people to be unfair bullying do not play well. Given the current configuration, if Taiwan were to choose unification it would have to be at the agreement of Taiwanese voters – and moves that hurt Taiwan, diminish its ‘national dignity’ etc, are unlikely to succeed in winning these voters over.

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How the media frames Taiwan

When news broke about US President-elect Donald Trump’s call with Tsai Ing-wen, the subjects that most interested the international media were: first, the United States—in the guise of the news-cycle-dominant Trump—and, second, China, and its likely reaction to Trump’s diplomatic faux pas. Pro-Trump analysts viewed the story through the lens of a newly robust US foreign policy towards China. Anti-Trump analysts fretted about the dire consequences of the neophyte leader’s ignorant approach to US-China relations. Taiwan, its government and its people, were at best a footnote; even when it transpired that the call was initiated by Taiwan, the focus remained on the wisdom of Trump accepting the call, his motivations, and how China would react. This treatment is consistent with long term Western media narratives on Taiwan.

In general terms, Taiwan’s efforts to present its own narrative have come up against entrenched framing strategies that privilege Beijing’s rhetorical position. Within a dominant focus on developments in Taiwan through the lens of cross-Strait relations and the broader regional political environment structured by Sino-US relations, these framings frequently connect Taiwan to “tensions” in the Strait. Despite enjoying functional autonomy, reports about Taiwan invariably position it within an implicit ”One- China” framework, where China’s claims to control Taiwan are juxtaposed with subtly “destabilizing” forces within and emanating out of Taiwanese domestic politics. This is evident in frequent depictions of the pursuit of “independence,” notwithstanding the almost complete marginalisation of this position in Taiwan itself. Full piece here

Some additional thoughts on Ma’s nixed HK trip

Former President Ma Ying-jeou’s application to travel to Hong Kong for a brief speaking engagement has been turned down by the new Tsai administration. It was a decision based on consultation with government security agencies and wasn’t Tsai’s unilateral decision. Technically Ma’s application did not meet the rules regarding the 20 day advance notice for former presidents within 3 years of leaving office. Lee Teng-hui was allowed to travel to the UK one month after stepping down in 2000 (by a DPP government); but the UK does not have the symbolism that HK does (it was where the meeting between KMT-CCP took place in 1992 that gives its name to the ‘1992 consensus’), and after all, HK is quasi governed by China. Ma is in possession of huge amounts of “classified knowledge” and the potential for either purposeful or accidental disclosure of information is much higher in HK than almost anywhere else in the world. This is not to imply that Ma has or had any intention whatsoever of disclosing classified information, but given that for 8 years Ma has espoused pro-China preferences it is no surprise that most Taiwanese are suspicious of a visit so soon after he stepped down to a location that has been used as a (often clandestine) meeting place for ROC/KMT PRC/CCP officials.

A further aspect is that the KMT has demonstrated before that it is happy to bypass the duly elected government to conduct “diplomacy” with China. Then KMT Honorary Chairman Lien Chan’s “peace mission” to China in 2005, completely bypassing the DPP government, is something that the DPP wants to avoid repeating. At a time when Tsai’s government has yet to really establish its modus operandi for cross-Strait relations, it is not tactically wise to let Ma visit HK and potentially take a step in that direction. I don’t think the decision is retribution for Ma’s treatment of Chen. There may be an element of throwing a bone to deep green supporters who have already been somewhat disappointed by Tsai’s conservative, centrist manoeuvres. But overall, there are genuine security issues and particular sensitivities with Hong Kong–and Ma would presumably have been aware of this when putting in his application. I have commented on this issue for the NYT here.

The demise of “guardian democracy”

When erstwhile Kuomintang presidential candidate Hung Hsiu-chu, 67, was asked to comment on the suicide of a troubled young man protesting at the national curriculum last summer, her response was sympathetic and in character. “It’s a terrible shame,” she said, adding that “kids don’t know any better” (小孩子不懂事 ).

The phrase, implying that younger generations don’t understand worldly affairs, is commonly used in Taiwan as a platitude by the supposedly older and wiser to comment on upsets and misguided life choices. It is usually a benign, sometimes indulgent, dismissal of the naive or uninformed opinions of younger people, the verbal equivalent of a pat on the head. In Taiwan, it is also an attitude that has long been deeply embedded in the political culture. But it is no longer sustainable, with significant implications for the forthcoming presidential and legislative elections and the future shape of Taiwanese politics and cross-strait relations.

The notion that wise elders should take care of decision-making, in the family and in politics, has a long history across many cultures. In various guises, it is manifest in “Confucian heritage” societies, in Lee Kuan Yew’s “Asian values” and in the Chinese Communist Party’s longstanding paternalism. It underpinned KMT one-party rule, a time when Taiwanese, like their contemporary mainland counterparts, were upbraided for lacking “quality” (素質) and “civilisation” (文明), and thus not to be trusted with democratic responsibilities. Taiwan’s transition to a flourishing democracy is a constant rebuttal to the self-serving narratives of conservative, change-resistant elites: Taiwanese have proven there is nothing inherent in Chinese or Confucian cultural heritage that disqualifies them from having a fully functioning, vibrant democracy. Continue reading at SCMP.

Taiwan 2016 elections are not about China

It is not news that, in Taiwan, the Democratic Progressive Party’s presidential candidate, Tsai Ing-wen, is heading for victory on January 16. She has enjoyed a double-digit lead across all polls throughout the year, and recently crossed the psychological 50-point mark, ahead of her rivals, Eric Chu of the Kuomintang and James Soong of the People First Party. Seasoned Taiwan watchers know to take media polls with a pinch of salt. But the consensus across the political spectrum is that Tsai is a lock, barring something unforeseen.

Unexpected things do happen in Taiwanese elections. In 2000, the then independent Soong was ahead in the polls until the KMT broke a corruption scandal about him. Chen Shui-bian sustained gunshot wounds while campaigning on the eve of his re-election in 2004, which might have swung the vote in his favour. More recently, no one foresaw that Ma Ying-jeou would have a face-to-face meeting with President Xi Jinping (習近平).

If the latter surprise was intended to give the KMT’s election chances a boost, it didn’t work, despite the appealing optics of “the handshake” for the world’s media and the boost it might provide for perceptions outside Taiwan of Ma’s “legacy”. (In Taiwan, the meeting was greeted with anger or apathy.)

The 2016 presidential election is all about Ma and the KMT; Tsai’s big lead does not necessarily reflect huge enthusiasm for the DPP. The KMT’s expected loss in the coming election would reflect widespread discontent with Ma and his party, particularly the outcomes and trajectory of his economic policies. In the past 7½ years that Ma has been in power, the cost of living in Taiwan has steadily risen while wages have barely moved. House prices have increased by 45 per cent, and the price of a Taipei home is now about 16 times the average annual income (it is 7.5 times in Taiwan as a whole). Full article at SCMP

Assessing Ma’s presidency

Six weeks out from Election Day in Taiwan, the DPP presidential candidate Tsai Ing-wen has an unassailable lead in the polls, and the only uncertainty is whether her party, the DPP, will win a legislative majority, and if so, by how large a margin. The ruling KMT is reeling; damaged by an unpopular outgoing president, rifts in the party, an indecisive last minute candidate and a series of policy flops and scandals. Whatever the intention behind last month’s hastily arranged meeting in Singapore between Chinese President Xi Jinping and Taiwan’s Ma Ying-jeou, it has failed to invigorate the KMT or change its fortunes in the polls. For readers with a passing interest in Taiwan, this may come as a surprise. After all, Ma has overseen a period of unprecedented calm and productive relations with Taiwan’s biggest existential threat, China.

Upon entering office in 2008, Ma had four overarching aims. First, to stabilize cross-strait relations that effectively came to a halt at the (semi-)official level during his predecessor Chen Shui-bian’s tenure. Second, to revive Taiwan’s economic fortunes through closer integration with the Chinese economy. Third, to balance the imperative of economic incentives with the maintenance of “national dignity.” Fourth, to roll back the “de-Sinicization” elements of Chen Shui-bian’s “Taiwanization” program by emphasizing Taiwan’s Chinese cultural heritage and situating Taiwan within the framework of the greater Chinese nation. Read the full piece at The National Interest.

The KMT’s China Policy: Gains and Failures

The KMT’s China policy under President Ma Ying-jeou has been based on four overarching aims. First, to stabilize cross-Strait relations that effectively came to a halt at the semi-official level during his predecessor Chen Shui-bian’s tenure. Second, to revive Taiwan’s economic fortunes through closer integration with the Chinese economy. Third, to balance the imperative of economic incentives with the maintenance of “national dignity”. Fourth, to roll back the “de-Sinicization” elements of Chen Shui-bian’s “Taiwanization” program by emphasizing elements of Taiwan’s Chinese cultural heritage and situating Taiwan within the framework of the greater Chinese nation. The underlying device used to pursue these aims has been the “1992 Consensus”, a rhetorical position regarding Taiwan’s status vis-à-vis China characterized by “One China, separate interpretations”. The “1992 Consensus” is controversial in Taiwan, but its ambiguities have created space for the two sides to develop a workable platform and a new level of momentum. During Ma’s tenure, this platform has yielded a number of practical agreements across several socio-economic sectors, including a limited free trade agreement, the Cross-Straits Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement (ECFA). When he stands down at the end of his second term in 2016, Ma Ying-jeou will leave cross-Strait relations in significantly better shape than when he began his presidency in 2008. In that sense, his China policy can be considered a success. However, such is the complicated and multifaceted nature of Taiwan’s engagement with China that Ma’s China policy cannot be measured by the tone of cross-Strait relations alone, or by the tenor of particular leaders’ personal interactions or KMT-CCP relations. Taiwan’s China policy has implications for its economy, society, foreign relations and many other policy sectors, and it remains one of the most contested arenas for domestic political competition, often, but not exclusively, refracted through the prism of national identity. Expanding our analytical lens to include these other arenas will demonstrate that the KMT’s China policy under Ma has produced mixed results that can be interpreted as successes or failures depending on one’s point of view. In this paper, we aim to provide a balanced assessment of Ma’s China policy, incorporating multiple perspectives and covering multiple policy sectors. Full paper here.