As Tsai Ing-wen takes over Taiwan, the reality sets in: Koo

Taiwan’s Tsai Ing-wen handily won the January election to become the next president of Taiwan. Now comes the hard part — on May 20 she will take office and govern.

Tsai ran on the platform of keeping the status quo but not accepting the One-China principle and not recognizing the 1992 Consensus. She is going to find out that there is a price to having status quo across the Taiwan Straits.

“One China” is short hand for the recognition that Taiwan is part of China, a fact confirmed by UN Resolution No. 2758 enacted in 1971. The “1992 Consensus” refers to the last summit meeting between the representatives of Beijing and Taipei held in Hong Kong where both sides agreed to “one China” but each according to their interpretation as to exactly what that means.

The mutually accepted ambiguity inherent in the consensus allowed Ma Ying-jeou to establish closer ties and economic cooperation with the mainland when he came into office in 2008.

When Ma came into office, Taiwan was in terrible shape. Chen Shui-bian, Ma’s predecessor mismanaged the economy and tried hard to agitate for the US to step in and confront the mainland, a move that only deepened the antipathy that then president, George W. Bush, had for Chen.

There was no communication or economic linkage between Taiwan and the mainland and no respect for Chen. Aside from his hard-core supporters, it was clear that Chen and his family was thoroughly corrupt. As soon as Chen was out of office and lost his immunity from prosecution, he was sent to jail and convicted of a variety of criminal charges.

Tsai Ing-wen

Tsai Ing-wen

Cross-strait trade blossomed under Ma

The eight years under Ma has dramatically altered the cross-strait relationship. Cross-strait trade has increased to nearly $190 billion in 2015. Since both sides signed the Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement (ECFA) in 2010, bilateral trade has increased by 70% and surplus grown from roughly 2 to 1 every year to more than 3 to 1 in Taiwan’s favor in 2015.

Under Chen’s regime, there were no tourists from the mainland and no direct flights. Now there are 890 cross-straits flights per week from 61 destinations on the mainland. With over 4 million tourist visits, mainland visitors make up 40% of all visits and half of Taiwan’s earnings from tourism.

Unhappily for Ma and his KMT party, he failed to fully explain the benefits of cross-strait collaboration and because of the global financial crisis that coincided with his coming into office, Ma under-delivered on the economic benefits of economic cooperation with the mainland as compared to his campaign promises.

Instead of growing closer to the mainland, the people of Taiwan, especially the younger generation became more antagonistic over the fear of mainlanders dominating the Taiwan economy. It did not help that the younger generation has been raised on textbooks revised under Chen’s administration — textbooks that refute the historical and cultural ties between the people of Taiwan and the mainland.

Tsai’s dilemma will be finding a way of pleasing her core supporters that do not believe in collaborating with the mainland while somehow maintaining the status quo across the straits. Beijing has already hinted to Tsai that there is no automatic granting of status quo if she is unwilling to concede to the One China principle.

Recently Ma’s lame duck government received an invitation from the World Health Organization to send observers to the World Health Assembly, an annual gathering of nations to discuss problems related to public health. The invite was referred to Tsai’s incoming administration to handle.

 President of Taiwan Ma Ying-jeou

Ma Ying-jeou

UN resolution angle

For the first time since 2007 when Chen was president, the invitation explicitly mentioned that the invitation was extended to Taiwan under UN resolution 2758. The significance is that accepting the invitation is equivalent to Tsai’s government accepting the principle that Taiwan is part of China.

Now that the KMT has become the opposition, they are jeering at Tsai having to handle the first of likely many hot potatoes. They said that DPP used to castigate Ma for agreeing to the 1992 consensus and now Tsai doesn’t even have the advantage of ambiguity as cover.

Tsai will feel the sting of Taiwan’s lacking international recognition as a sovereign state in other ways.

Recently, a group of citizens of Taiwan were arrested in Kenya and accused of conducting some kind of scam. Before Taipei could intervene, the accused were sent to Beijing for adjudication because Kenya like most members of the UN has no diplomatic relations with Taipei.

Taiwan-Japan tensions

Even Japan has not treated Taiwan kindly. Recently, the Japanese Navy seized a Taiwanese fishing boat and demanded the posting of a bail bond before releasing the captain of the boat. Some people in Taiwan observed that Japan would not have dared to seize a PRC fishing boat much less demanded a ransom.

Chen Shui-bian

Chen Shui-bian

On the top of it all, the latest imbroglio being debated in Taiwan is whether Chen Shui-bian will accept Tsai’s formal VIP invitation and attend Tsai’s inaugural banquet. One view is that Chen has been released from jail on medical grounds. Therefore, if he is well enough to attend the public event, he is healthy enough to be sent back to jail post haste.

Another view is that Chen’s presence on the head table among former presidents will draw all the media’s attention and deprive Tsai of the limelight that she deserves. Chen’s son publicly questioned why Taiwan can’t be more like the US where former presidents are honored as a group irrespective of political party affiliation, overlooking his father’s criminal record.

The fountain of pettiness from the Chen’s family never runs dry and continues to spew forth and feed Taiwan’s morbid curiosity about the former first family.

Tsai is trained in economics and international law. She is bright enough to know that if she cannot successfully stimulate Taiwan’s economy, everything else won’t matter much and she will be a likely one-term president.

The KMT is in such tatters that it’s an opposition that won’t be bothersome to her. Her concern will be finding a way to continue to collaborate with Beijing. Taiwan’s economy is integrated with and dependent on the mainland. She won’t be able to do much to Taiwan’s economy without being an integral part of China’s economy.

The people of Taiwan and on the mainland will be listening intently to her forthcoming inauguration speech to understand her vision of a thriving Taiwan future in interesting times.

Dr. George Koo recently retired from a global advisory services firm where he advised clients on their China strategies and business operations. Educated at MIT, Stevens Institute and Santa Clara University, he is the founder and former managing director of International Strategic Alliances. He is a member of the Committee of 100, and a director of New America Media.

The opinions expressed in this column are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the view of Asia Times. 

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