Contours of President Tsai’s Cross-Strait Policy After 2020 Elections
After winning a decisive re-election on January 11 for the presidency of Taiwan, Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) has a renewed mandate to lead the country. After an election campaign fueled by growing concerns about malign political interference by Beijing, her victory speech emphasized the need for unity among the political parties in the island-democracy—not only to begin healing the wounds left by a vicious political campaign but to fend off what will surely be a bigger fight ahead. Indeed, President Tsai’s victory speech was not only directed to the country’s electorate; China loomed large in the background of the 2020 elections as Beijing’s saber-rattling and the civil unrest in the Hong Kong Special Administration Region (SAR) reverberated like constant political tremors throughout Taiwan. In her speech, President Tsai had a clear message for Beijing: resume official communications, renounce the use of force, do not deny the existence of the Republic of China, and the future must be decided by the people of Taiwan. Specifically, President Tsai stated:
I want to once again call upon the Beijing authorities to remind them that peace, parity, democracy, and dialogue are the key to positive cross-strait interactions and long-term stable development. These four words are also the only path to bringing together and benefitting both our two peoples. “Peace” means that China must abandon threats of force against Taiwan. “Parity” means that neither side of the Taiwan Strait should deny the fact of the other’s existence. “Democracy” means that the future of Taiwan must be decided by our country’s 23 million people. “Dialogue” means that we must be able to sit down and discuss the future development of cross-strait relations.
The four principles (i.e., peace, parity, democracy, and dialogue) will ostensibly form the foundation of Tsai administration’s cross-Strait policy after the 2020 elections. These principles do not reflect any fundamentally new premise in cross-Strait relations. In fact, President Tsai’s emphasis on “parity” is similar to President Ma Ying-jeou’s (馬英九) principle of “mutual non-denial” that he stated in 2008 when elected for his first term. Indeed, as Ma then explained: “mutual recognition [between the two sides of the Taiwan Strait] is not possible, while mutual denial is unnecessary. Therefore, only mutual non-denial can provide space for interaction.” Specifically, the position implies that “we will not deny its [China’s] existence but we cannot recognize its sovereignty.” While such first principles alone would leave much wanting in terms of specifics, the cross-Strait policy for Tsai’s second administration will likely build on the policy and legal frameworks laid out in her 2016 inaugural address. During her 2016 inaugural speech, President Tsai referred to the political foundation of her cross-Strait policy as:
The first element is the fact of the 1992 talks between the two institutions representing each side across the Strait (SEF & ARATS), when there was joint acknowledgement of setting aside differences to seek common ground. This is a historical fact. The second element is the existing Republic of China constitutional order. The third element pertains to the outcomes of over twenty years of negotiations and interactions across the Strait. And the fourth relates to the democratic principle and prevalent will of the people of Taiwan.
The key question now is whether Beijing will show creativity, demonstrate flexibility, and adjust its failed policy and approach to cross-Strait relations. It bears mentioning that after Tsai’s election victory in 2016, Beijing appeared to initially flirt with a more conciliatory approach when the Foreign Minister of the People’s Republic of China (PRC), Wang Yi, gave a speech in Washington, DC in February 2016, that did not refer to the so-called “1992 Consensus”—a controversial tacit agreement made between the Nationalist Party (Kuomintang, or KMT) and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) that both sides belonged to One China. Instead, Wang focused on the fact that Taiwan’s “own constitution” (他們自己憲法), under which Tsai was elected, provides that Taiwan and the “mainland” belong to one and the same China. Most notably, Wang expressed the hope that Tsai would, “in her own way” (以她自己的方式) accept that constitutional provision. That hope was quickly dashed in March 2016 when Beijing re-established diplomatic relations with The Gambia.
Despite the olive branch in President Tsai’s inaugural address, which referred to the both ROC Constitution and the Act Governing Relations between the People of the Taiwan Area and the Mainland Area (臺灣地區與大陸地區人民關係條例)—which is the law of the land and governs cross-Strait relations—Beijing did not reciprocate. Rather, Beijing snubbed her inaugural address as an “incomplete test paper” and has worked unceasingly to unilaterally undermine the cross-Strait status quo through a multifaceted pressure campaign that aims to isolate Taiwan internationally and divide it internally.
In light of the fact that Beijing has shown Tsai little goodwill during the first four years of her administration, there does not appear to be any expectation that she would make any further concessions during her second term, much less that Taipei would or should negotiate with Beijing on the latter’s terms based on Beijing’s “One-China Principle” and its “one country, two systems” corollary. It is in this context that the determination by the US administration to permit the vice-president elect, Dr. William Lai, to visit DC in a non-official capacity to attend the National Prayer Breakfast and meet with lawmakers and officials as consistent with the US “One-China policy” and a reflection of the growing trust and support for Taiwan in Washington, DC. It should be noted that the vice-president elect is the most senior political figure from Taiwan to be permitted to visit DC prior to taking office since the switch in diplomatic relations in 1979. While President Tsai has committed to maintaining the “status quo,” in the face of ever-increasing pressure, it may become increasingly difficult for the Tsai administration to continue to chart a pragmatic, consistent, and responsible cross-Strait policy.
The main point: The four principles (i.e., peace, parity, democracy, and dialogue) that President Tsai Ing-wen outlined in her election victory speech will ostensibly form the foundation of her second administration’s cross-Strait policy. They will also be reinforced by the legal and policy frameworks laid out in her inaugural address in 2016.
Correction: An earlier version of this article inaccurately referred to Tsai’s victory statement as literally calling for Beijing to recognize the existence the ROC.
Military Propaganda Across the Taiwan Strait
Only days before the lunar new year ushering in the year of the Rat—when people on both sides of the Taiwan Strait prepared to return home to spend time with family for the holidays—a provocative image of a People’s Liberation Army (PLA) military command post on Chinese social media quickly made its way into the information space of Taiwan. In the image, several dozen PLA soldiers sat surrounding a large topographic map in the middle of a large room—the map appeared to be of the southern coastline of Taiwan. The military station’s name is the Southern Island-Landing Battle Group Command Post (南部登島作戰群指揮所) and a Southern Island-Landing Battle Group Landing Craft Loading Map was plastered on one of the interior walls. One of the routes on the maps shows the PLA simulating the capture of Kinmen, then Penghu, and marching on the south of Taiwan, while another picture seems to show the routes of the PLA after landing on the island.
The provocative image reportedly appeared—simultaneously—on several well-known Chinese social media outlets such as Weibo (微博), Tianfu Community (天府社區), and Dingsheng Forum (鼎盛論壇) on January 19. The topographic map was visibly covered with black marks, which appear to be the positions that the PLA would seize and possible routes. Although the image has not been directly attributed to the Chinese government, it follows a pattern of PLA offensive cognitive operations to influence public opinion in Taiwan. For instance, in December 2016, the PLA Air Force’s (PLAAF) official Weibo account released an image of a PLA HK-6 bomber in the sky and Chinese media sources suggested that the background was of the highest mountain peak in Taiwan.
In another example, maps of Taiwan appeared in a photograph of a PLA exercise taken from PLA’s Eastern Theater Command on June 8, 2018. In that image, at an exercise conducted by the PLA 73rd Army Air Defense Unit (第73集團軍防空分隊) in Beichenshan (北辰山), Xiamen, appeared two blurred maps that appear to show military deployments appearing in the background of the exercise command post. One was a deployment map of the fortress in the Kinmen area, and the other was a schematic diagram of the radar station and military airport on Taiwan—which caused quite a media stir in Taiwan at the time.
These non-exhaustive but illustrative examples, which also include short videos, reflect the PLA’s cognitive domain operations. According to research conducted by RAND analyst Nathan Beauchamp-Mustafaga, the goal of cognitive domain operations “is ‘mind superiority’ (制腦權, zhinaoquan), using psychological warfare to shape or even control the enemy’s cognitive thinking and decision-making.” In recent years, Chinese military propaganda have also been complemented by increased PLA military activities encircling Taiwan. According to former Pentagon official Mark Stokes, executive director of the Project 2049 Institute, “the PLA has a history of using airpower as an instrument of coercive persuasion against Taiwan. The PLAAF began flights over the Taiwan Strait in 1996, and extended operations to the centerline in 1999” during previous periods of heightened cross-Strait tensions. Stokes added that “diminishing Taiwan’s air space would play into its strategic objectives and claims over disputed territories in the region.” Taken in their totality, the military propaganda and the substantial increase and greater frequency of exercises may be seen as a form of enhanced coercive diplomacy.
In the preliminary analysis, while the image of the topographic map has yet been attributable to the Chinese government, it does fit the hallmark of PLA cognitive domain operations. It is highly unlikely to indicate military action in the near or even medium term and appears intended for its psychological effects in light of President Tsai’s electoral victory on January 11. According to Carl Schuster, a former US Navy captain, cited by CNN while commenting on a Chinese military propaganda video directed at Taiwan released in early 2019: “It [the video] is trying to convince them they cannot match China’s military power, that defeat is inevitable and no one, not even the United States, will come to their aid.” For its part, visible US military presence in the area has helped to militate against the coercive effects of these PLA cognitive domain operations. Indeed, the US Navy has ramped up its naval transits through the Taiwan Strait. The US Navy has conducted nine transits through the Taiwan Strait in 2019—the most since 2016 when US warships transited through the waterway 12 times.
The main point: A recent image that appeared on Chinese social media of a PLA command station with a topographic map of the southern coastline of Taiwan is consistent with the Chinese military’s cognitive domain operations.