Are DPP and KMT Views of China Converging?

Are DPP and KMT Views of China Converging?

Are DPP and KMT Views of China Converging?

Political scientists and policy makers have long recognized that Taiwan’s divided views on China have weakened its ability to deal with Beijing. The internal differences over China have defined and divided Taiwan politics for decades. Nevertheless, Taiwan leaders have dreamed of building a consensus that would strengthen Taipei’s hand. Consensus has been elusive, but differences within Taiwan have narrowed. Have opinions begun to converge?

During Chen Shui-bian’s (陳水扁) tenure, the struggle between the “pro-unification” Kuomintang (KMT, 國民黨) and the “pro-independence” Democratic Progressive Party (DPP, 民進) was seen by both as existential. [1] However, in 2008, Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九)—who personally supports eventual unification—moved the KMT toward the political center. His advocacy of “no unification, no independence, and no use of force” and his support of the “one China, respective interpretations” version of the “1992 Consensus” (九二共識) essentially sought to redefine the KMT as a party favoring the status quo. He easily won election on that platform. 

In 2016, Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文), who supports eventual independence, also adopted a pragmatic approach. She stopped publicly rejecting “one China” and refrained from talking about independence. Rather than explicitly rejecting the “1992 Consensus”, she acknowledged the historical fact that talks had occurred in 1992. Furthermore, she said she would abide by agreements negotiated with Beijing and would base her cross-Strait policy on the Republic of China (ROC) Constitution and the existing cross-strait statute, both of which have a basis in the idea of “one China.” This moved the DPP toward the political center. She too easily won election that year, but her redefined policy was rejected by Beijing. 

2019 was a pivotal year for Taiwan and cross-Strait relations. First, Xi Jinping’s (習近平) address in January adopted a harder line on reunification. In insisting that peaceful unification will be achieved, he stated that the “one country, two systems” framework was the way it would be accomplished. He asserted that Beijing’s definition of “one China” was a given, but that discussions about how it would apply to Taiwan should be pursued. He reiterated that Beijing would not reject the possible use of force. This was a dose of cold water that was almost universally rejected in Taiwan. 

Second, the demonstrations in Hong Kong against a proposed extradition law morphed into increasingly violent demonstrations against China and for greater democracy. Beijing’s insistence that the Hong Kong Government reject these demands and forcefully suppress the demonstrations only convinced Taiwanese that “one country, two systems” was not just inappropriate for Taiwan but actually a danger. 

President Tsai decisively won reelection in January 2020 on a platform that rejected “one country, two systems” and advocated defending Taiwan’s democratic way of life and actively resisting PRC pressures on Taiwan. Many in the KMT read their defeat as a sign of the need for new leadership and a new policy toward the mainland that was more in tune with popular sentiment. 

How far apart are the two main parties on China in 2020? The DPP’s record and Tsai’s policies are known. The KMT under new Chairman Johnny Chiang chi-chen (江啟臣) has issued two papers on China. The first was the report of the reform committee in June; the second was the “Cross-Strait Discourse” statement announced at the Party Congress in September. These documents and other statements provide a basis for examining similarities and differences between the two parties’ policies.   

President Tsai has stated that her goal is to maintain the status quo, through the “stable and peaceful development of cross-Strait relations.” She committed not to return to the confrontational policies of the Chen Shui-bian era. She has kept that promise, despite recurrent pressures from pro-independence groups, by maintaining majority DPP support for her policies. Similarly, KMT Chairman Chiang has stated that the KMT’s goal is “to strive for cross-Strait peace and common well-being.” While differences remain, both parties have now articulated the goal of maintaining stable, peaceful cross-Strait relations. This aligns with the Taiwanese public’s strong support for the status quo.  

Both the DPP and KMT now categorically reject the CCP’s “one country, two systems” (一國兩制) proposal. While their views on the “1992 Consensus” remain different, they have evolved. The DPP has long stated that there was no consensus in 1992 because no joint document was issued. The KMT has held that a tacit agreement did exist and provided a basis for dialogue when the KMT was in power. The KMT describes that tacit agreement as “one China, respective interpretations.” Neither party accepts the CCP’s “One-China Principle” that forms the basis for its definition of the “1992 Consensus on one China.” 

Nevertheless in 2016, President Tsai stated that she “respects the historical fact” that in 1992 the two sides reached “some joint acknowledgements and understandings.” The concrete results of those understandings should be cherished and form the basis for the future, she argued. Then, in 2020, the KMT Reform Committee report broke with past KMT policy and described the “1992 Consensus” as an historical view that had provided a basis for dialogue in the past. It went on to say that the CCP had twisted the meaning of the consensus to the point that it was no longer useful. However, the subsequent KMT Congress statement took a different view, adopting a new definition of the Consensus stating that the “Republic of China (ROC) Constitution based ‘1992 Consensus’ could provide a basis for continuing cross-Strait dialogue.” However, Beijing’s silence on this language is likely an indication that this redefinition is not acceptable and that the CCP hopes that this KMT view will change. However, domestic pressure will likely require the KMT to reexamine that position and find a way to further distance itself from the “1992 Consensus” in order to better align with public sentiment. In sum, past diametrically opposed KMT and DPP policies on the “1992 Consensus” are evolving and may become closer. 

Neither of the two parties have in the past been strong proponents for increasing Taiwan’s national defense effort. During Chen Shui-bian’s second term, the KMT in the Legislative Yuan (LY) and the DPP in the executive office both used defense policy for partisan purposes.[2] Over the past two years, President Tsai has begun increasing defense spending. Furthermore, both the DPP and KMT supported the adoption of a special defense budget for new F-16V aircraft in 2019. Recently, the KMT proposed and the DPP supported a unanimous LY resolution that “the President should conduct regular transfers of defense articles to Taiwan that are tailored to meet the existing and likely future threats from the People’s Republic of China.” Here again, policies are converging.

Despite this growing agreement, the two parties’ concepts of Taiwan continue to differ. The DPP continues to base its view on the Party’s 1999 Resolution on Taiwan’s Future. That document describes Taiwan and China as two separate countries. Two decades ago, many KMT leaders still viewed unification as a long-term goal. However, recent KMT documents no longer mention unification. Although recent KMT documents do not explicitly endorse “reunification” or “one China,” the KMT continues to base its policy on the ROC Constitution, which the KMT maintains “links the two sides of the Strait.”

In line with their core views, the two parties use different terms to express similar views.  For instance, while the DPP asserts that “Taiwan” is sovereign and independent, the KMT states that the “ROC” has always been sovereign and independent. Both the DPP and KMT increasingly talk about their country as “Taiwan.” However, the DPP generally uses “Taiwan” both for convenience and policy reasons. Nevertheless, since becoming president, Tsai has been careful to use the “ROC” name on official occasions, and she has at times reached out to KMT supporters by calling on Beijing to accept the existence of the ROC. The KMT also uses “Taiwan” for convenience, but prefers to use the “ROC” name, often employing it as a political rallying tool. The DPP has expanded the use of “Taiwan,” such as by redesigning the passport cover, highlighting “Taiwan” in English while retain “ROC” in Chinese. Conversely, he KMT has resisted efforts to denigrate the “ROC” name. Nevertheless, the two parties’ special committees handling relations with Beijing use terms in line with their core positions. The DPP’s is called its China Affairs Committee, while the KMT’s is called its Mainland Affairs Council.

In the Chen Shui-bian era, the DPP tried on more than one occasion to promote a new constitution more appropriate for Taiwan. Even this year, DPP members of the LY have made proposals to change the sovereignty aspects of the Constitution. However, President Tsai has consistently resisted these pressures, advocating only amendments that would not affect sovereignty. The KMT actively opposes any effort to change the sovereignty provisions.

In 2019, DPP members identified enthusiastically with Hong Kong demonstrators and President Tsai repeatedly encouraged Hong Kong to exercise restraint and urged Beijing to respect the people’s democratic demands. However, KMT members views on the demonstrations and subsequent violence were divided. The KMT, like the DPP, maintained that Beijing’s response demonstrated again that “one country, two systems” was not appropriate for Taiwan. However, the KMT was reluctant to join in endorsing the demonstrations and paid a price for that in the 2020 elections. This year, both the DPP and KMT have strongly criticized Beijing’s decision to impose the Hong Kong National Security Law, as well as the manner in which it has been used to repress dissent.

The Tsai administration criticizes the CCP regularly on a wide variety of issues, often in harsh terms. At times, it intentionally uses terms that are known to irritate Beijing, such as referring to SARS CoV-2 as the “Wuhan virus.” In the past, KMT leaders have been reluctant to criticize the CCP, in part because the KMT wants to cooperate with Beijing and because its party leaders regularly meet with Chinese leaders. However, Johnny Chiang has been willing this year to criticize China on a host of issues, including blocking Taiwan’s international participation, PLA intrusions into Taiwan’s Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ), and the mass detention of Uyghurs in Xinjiang. Here again, the expressed views of the two parties are converging. The clearest example of the KMT’s stronger stances toward China was its decision for the first time to withdraw from participation in the annual Straits Forum with the CCP after CCTV made insulting remarks about the KMT’s chief delegate to the Forum. 

What the parties say they stand for has clearly become closer. As its name suggests, the DPP has from the beginning stood for Taiwan’s democratic values, arguing that its struggles led to the establishment of democracy in Taiwan. In seeking to reposition the KMT, Chairman Chiang has called for maintaining “the values of the Republic of China’s free and democratic system.” The KMT bases its democratic tradition on Sun Yat-sen’s (孫逸仙) Three Principles of the People (三民主義) and credits former President Chiang Ching-kuo (蔣經國) with leading Taiwan to democracy. Despite these different perspectives, both parties now see Taiwan’s democratic tradition as a core difference between themselves and the CCP. 

In sum, there are still differences in the parties’ views. Party history and competitive electoral politics have and will continue to result in some differentiation. However, there is now more convergence of the views and policies of the two main parties toward Beijing than at any time in the past. What has been driving this degree of convergence? Over the past 15 years, both parties have sought to move toward the center in order to better align themselves with majority opinion and win elections. Recently, however, the harder line that General Secretary Xi Jinping has adopted toward both Taiwan and Hong Kong since 2019 has pushed the two parties closer together. In the face of CCP repression, both the DPP and KMT are invested in defending Taiwan’s interests.

It is also relevant that, for the first time, the third largest party in Taiwan is not further toward the extremes than the two main parties. Mayor Ko Wen-je’s (柯文哲) Taiwan People’s Party (TPP, 台灣民眾黨) is attempting to position itself between the two main parties.

To the extent that differences over policy toward Beijing are narrowed, Taiwan will be in a stronger position to protect its interests and resist CCP pressure, including Beijing’s United Front divide and conquer strategy. There is still a considerable way to go, but progress has been made toward convergence.  

The main point: Despite their long history of rivalry, the DPP and KMT are increasingly finding areas of convergence in their respective policies toward China. While differences in views remain, this increasing convergence in views on a number of key issues has the potential of strengthening Taiwan’s hand in cross-Strait negotiations.

[1] Chu, Yun-han, Larry Diamond, and Kharis Templeman. Taiwan’s Democracy Challenged: the Chen Shui-Bian Years. Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner Publishers, 2016.

[2] Ibid.