Bridging the Strait: Optimism for Taiwan’s Uncertain Future


On Saturday, November 7, 2015, Taiwan President Ma Ying-jeou met with Chinese president and Communist Party general secretary Xi Jinping at the Shangri-La Hotel in Singapore. This meeting was the highest level encounter between leaders from the two sides of the Taiwan Strait since 1949. Brief but historic, the Ma-Xi summit will undoubtedly leave an impact on the future of cross-strait relations and re-focus international attention on the relationship.Reception of the encounter between Mr. Ma and Mr. Xi was largely positive, with the meeting largely seen as a breakthrough in cross-strait dialogue throughout the international community. Within Taiwan, the Ma administration, the ruling party Kuomintang (KMT), and business organizations each expressed support for the meeting, which was perceived as helping improve Taiwan’s economic prospects as well as cross-strait stability. It was, however, met with skepticism and protest by the opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), as well as young Taiwanese sympathetic to the cause of independence. Arguably, Taiwan could not have asked for a summit under more favorable terms of parity and dignity. Mainland China, which has long objected to bringing a what it considers to be a “domestic” issue onto the international stage, was reluctant to host a possible meeting at the 2014 Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum in Beijing, conceded to holding the summit in the neutral location of Singapore. Singapore represents a kind of continuity, as it is where senior political figures from Taiwan and mainland China began institutionalized talks in 1993, and opened a new phase in cross-strait relations.

Moreover, this historic meeting was conducted on a leader-to-leader basis rather than party-to-party, as was customary in meetings between officials from the KMT and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). The two leaders also agreed to refer to each other as “Mister” to avoid the politically sensitive implications that would accompany the title of president. The summit in Singapore effectively constituted acknowledgment of 66 years of division across the strait and the representation of Taipei and Beijing by separate political entities and leaders.

Mr. Ma and Mr. Xi reaffirmed the importance of the “1992 Consensus” as a political foundation in cross-strait relations, though concerned stakeholders attach different meanings to its substance. The 1992 Consensus refers to both sides’ recognition of “one China” but agreement to differ on its precise political definition. To Beijing, “one China” means the People’s Republic of China (PRC). Taipei, on the other hand, holds that it means the Republic of China (ROC).

Mr. Xi equated the 1992 Consensus to an insistence on the “one China” principle and an opposition to “Taiwan independence.” Addressing the Taiwanese people, Mr. Xi appealed to ethnic solidarity and national unity and warned against changing course. Without the 1992 Consensus, insists Mr. Xi, “the ship of peaceful development will meet with great waves and even suffer total loss.” Mr. Ma, in contrast, has contended that the consensus represents “one China, with respective interpretations.” The DPP, for its part, has disputed that there was a “consensus” at all and argued that any understanding reached between the KMT and the CCP was without a democratic mandate. Finally, because of its diplomatic relations with mainland China, the United States upholds a “one China” policy under the Three Joint Communiqués (in 1972, 1979, and 1982) and the Taiwan Relations Act of 1979.

While the meeting itself was a momentous step forward in cross-strait dialogue, it was characterized by more symbolism than substance. Taiwan remains concerned with military hostility from the mainland, including the growing capabilities of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) and its buildup and deployment of some 2,000 ballistic missiles opposite, and targeting, the island. Taipei also seeks to participate in growing regional economic integration, including the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and the Regional Economic Comprehensive Partnership (RCEP), from which it has been excluded as a result of Beijing’s political opposition.

Mr. Xi assured that “fair and reasonable arrangements” will be made, claimed that the missiles do not target Taiwan, and cautioned a “complete collapse” of peaceful relations without certain political preconditions. Yet it seems unlikely that the Taiwanese public will be convinced by these statements, and more unlikely still that the words will enhance trust between the two sides.

The cross-strait meeting was held at a time when the ruling KMT continues to trail badly in Taiwan’s electoral polls, and Chairwoman Tsai Ing-wen is currently expected to lead the DPP to victory in the presidential and legislative elections in January 2016. Citing her ambiguity in regard to the 1992 Consensus, however, some observers fear that Taiwan’s relations with the Chinese mainland will come to a standstill due to Ms. Tsai’s lack of clarity and certainty about how she would sustain the status quo and a stable cross-strait relationship.

Whether it is cooperation or tension that reaches across the Taiwan Strait affects regional stability and development. Today, Taiwan formally calls itself the Republic of China (ROC), tracing its political lineage to the republic established by Sun Yat-sen after the 1911 revolution in China. The ROC government retreated to Taipei in 1949, when the Communists gained control of the Chinese mainland and established the People’s Republic of China (PRC).


The controversy concerning Taiwan’s political status hinges on whether Taiwan, and associated island groups Penghu, Kinmen, and Matsu should maintain the status quo as the ROC, pursue unification with the Chinese mainland under the PRC, or formally declare an independent state and establish a new constitution. The “Taiwan issue” also concerns whether the ROC or Taiwan’s existence as a state is legitimate and recognized by the international community.

The PRC claims that Taiwan is not a country, but rather that Taiwan is its territory—a province of China. Beijing does not exclude the possibility of using military force to resolve the matter. Arguably, American policy and intervention will determine Taiwan’s political future. Taiwan assumes that the United States will come to its defense pursuant to the Taiwan Relations Act in case of a cross-strait military conflict.

While the KMT stresses a ROC legacy based on “one China”, the DPP pursues Taiwan-centric policies based on a legacy of fighting for freedom. Both the KMT and the DPP have governed using the foundations of the ROC constitution for legitimacy, and, in June 2014, both parties stressed that Taiwan’s future should be decided by its 23 million people, rather than all Chinese people. Opinion polls have consistently shown that Taiwanese prefer to maintain the status quo. They want separation from mainland China for now but favor cordial cross-strait relations, closer economic ties, and avoidance of war.

In March and April 2014, the Ma administration faced challenges from the student-led Sunflower Movement over ratifying the Cross-Strait Agreement on Trade in Services with mainland China in the legislature. Later in November, the KMT suffered a major defeat in the local elections. The voters decisively rejected the Ma administration and ruling party for its failures regarding domestic policies. The electoral results may also imply that socioeconomic issues, like stagnant wages and income inequality, rather than cross-strait relations, have become the dominant concerns for Taiwanese voters.

Reliable polls conducted by the Election Study Center of National Chengchi University have continually tracked core political attitudes in Taiwan since 1992. On the issue of national identity, 59 percent of those polled in June 2015 regarded themselves as “Taiwanese,” 34 percent as “both Taiwanese and Chinese,” and 4 percent as “Chinese.” This contrasts with public opinion in 1996, when about 49 percent identified as “both Taiwanese and Chinese,” 24 percent as “Taiwanese,” and 18 percent as “Chinese.”

On the other hand, with respect to political status, 60 percent in June 2015 supported the status quo for now or indefinitely, 21 percent backed eventual or immediate independence, and 9 percent opted for eventual or immediate unification. In 1996, 46 percent supported the status quo, 22 percent eventual or immediate unification, and 14 percent eventual or immediate independence. The data reflect the development of a Taiwanese identity and a rising sentiment leaning towards independence.

Indeed, absent the military factor, a vast majority in Taiwan would prefer independence. But in light of Beijing’s military threat, however, Taiwan would be misguided to push for de jure independence, for such a move would incur disfavor with the international community as well as place the country in a vulnerable position. Under the precondition of cross-strait peace, Taiwan is presented with two options: work with Beijing to pursue eventual unification or resist unification and maintain the status quo.

Indeed, absent the threat of military force, a vast majority in Taiwan would prefer independence, but given Beijing’s military threat Taiwan would be misguided to push for de jure independence since such a move would alienate the international community and place the country in a highly vulnerable position. With cross-strait peace as a necessary precondition, Taiwan is presented with two options: work with Beijing to pursue eventual unification or resist unification and maintain the status quo.

Mainland China’s efforts to use economic leverage to convince the Taiwanese public to support its goal of eventual unification have not achieved their envisioned effects. The leadership in Beijing will have to adapt to shifting public opinion and demographics in Taiwan and decide whether additional concessions are necessary to pursue meaningful relations with the DPP, most members of which continue to back an anti-China stance.

Should the mainland embrace democratic reform, the potential to articulate a new, less ethnically-based nationalism could be realized. China could become pluralistic and prosperous, fostering reconciliation and co-existence. On the other side of the strait, the KMT needs to address why younger Taiwanese have difficulty identifying with the party’s policies and approach to liberalization. Now that the party is disconnected from the populace and facing its final months in power, it will have a reduced mandate to engage in further negotiations or dialogue across the strait.

At present, the KMT claims to oppose independence but does not support unification either. On the other hand, the DPP talks of Taiwan’s de facto independence under the status quo but remains ambiguous on the question of “one China” and whether unification is a possibility when the mainland attains living standards and political freedom commensurate with Taiwan.

Both the KMT and the DPP intentionally exercise ambiguity, but the parties could forge a democratic consensus on reconciling their interpretations of the constitution, clarifying their approaches towards the United States and the PRC, and candidly explicating their positions. This would benefit not only voters but also international stakeholders.

The next leader of Taiwan will need to be able to strengthen cross-strait peace and stability as well as pursue deeper strategic cooperation with the United States. This demands presenting a viable framework that accounts for different interpretations of “one China” and political status so as to appeal to a broader range of voters without alienating core supporters.

Ms. Tsai’s defeat in the 2012 presidential election might be attributed to the DPP’s lack of clarity and uncertainty regarding how she would maintain the status quo and a stable cross-strait relationship. In overcoming her ambiguity apropos the 1992 Consensus as a political basis for future negotiations, Ms. Tsai faces the challenge of appealing to both the DPP’s pro-independence base and moderate voters who favor continued cross-strait engagement.

In Taiwan, cross-strait relations continue to be a major factor of social and political division. Many observers have begun to fear, in light of recent developments, that Taiwan’s relations with mainland China will reach a bottleneck, and that no further progress can be made. But there is reason to be optimistic about the future.

First, following the 2014 Sunflower Student Movement, Beijing is paying closer attention to public opinion in Taiwan. Particular emphasis has been placed on the “three middles and the youth,”—medium- and small-sized enterprises, medium- and low-income families, residents of central and southern Taiwan, and young people. The mainland’s future policies will be more in line with and respond to the expectations of more Taiwanese people.

Contrary to what many critics claim, a second basis for optimism is that Ms. Tsai has presented to international stakeholders a welcome sincerity with regard to cross-strait affairs. On many occasions, including her April 2015 nomination acceptance speech, Ms. Tsai has reiterated her desire to maintain the “status quo.”

Her view of the status quo was further explicated in a June 3 speech at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington as “the peaceful and stable development of cross-strait relations in accordance with the will of the Taiwanese people and the existing ROC constitutional order.” Reinforcing this sentiment on June 7 in San Francisco, Ms. Tsai said of the 1992 Consensus. “Let us continue to seek common ground while shelving our differences.”

The 1947 ROC Constitution arguably holds stronger political legitimacy than the 1992 Consensus. Grounding cross-strait policies under the existing constitution represents Taiwan’s best hope of forging broader consensus and getting Beijing’s acknowledgment, if not recognition, of the ROC’s existence and jurisdiction over Taiwan. If Beijing is willing to read between the lines, it may even interpret this move by Ms. Tsai as a friendly but implicit acceptance of “one China” under the ROC Constitution.

The final basis for optimism is the common Chinese heritage shared by the two sides of the strait. Confucianism, Buddhism, and Taoism, as well as Chinese literature, etiquette, and the arts, for example, are promoted and preserved in Taiwan. Beijing should be open-minded enough to incorporate the virtues of “fellow compassion” (min bao wu yu) and “great unity” (da tong) envisioned in China’s ancient tradition. This could pave the way, in the years ahead, for new progress in cross-strait relations, as Taiwan and mainland China build a common future based on peace and co-prosperity.

For decades, Taiwan has been a significant security, economic, and political interest for the United States and the Asia Pacific region. The United States has critical interests in fostering stability across the Taiwan Strait, which, given potential US intervention, affects international security, the US-Taiwan relationship, and Sino-American cooperation.

The issue of cross-strait relations should not be approached as a military problem but a comparison of political systems and ways of life. Freedom and democracy are values deeply ingrained in the hearts of the Taiwanese people, and the conduct of cross-strait policies should transcend unilateral positions and incorporate different views.

Long locked in indignant isolation but immensely proud of their democratic achievements, Taiwan’s people must accept that democracy endows them with greater responsibility for regional stability. Only by forging a new domestic consensus on its relationship with mainland China can Taiwan remain an indispensable ally for the United States and a model for China’s future.

Maintaining the status quo at present constitutes the broad consensus in Taiwan and best serves the interests of all sides. The future of Taiwan, whether it be unification, independence, or maintenance of the status quo indefinitely, should be decided by its 23 million people, and Taiwan does not want this freedom of choice to shrink.

Mr. Ma has described the historic meeting with Mr. Xi as a move to build a “bridge” across the strait for his successor. Yet it will be difficult for Mr. Ma to dictate the future course of Taiwan in terms of cross-strait ties, one that the next administration is unlikely to follow.

The search for a sustainable order in cross-strait relations will demand time and understanding— and facing the fundamental issue of “one China.” As Mr. Ma himself iterated at the Singapore summit, “How cross-strait relations develop in the future will have to take into account the direction of public opinion…Cross-strait relations should be built on the foundation of dignity, respect, sincerity, and goodwill, for only then can we shorten the psychological gap between the two sides.”

The real test for Ms. Tsai is how she, if elected president, could build across the strait another bridge of her own