Tsai Ing-wen’s much awaited inaugural address contained no surprises for Taiwan observers. The address was basically a recapitulation of her previous promises and statements during and after the January presidential election. Although all eyes were on the section on cross-strait relations in her inaugural address, the address itself mostly focused on a variety of domestic challenges in Taiwan.
Interpretive Ambiguity for Conflicting Expectations
Her discussion on cross-strait relations was in the same section as “regional peace and stability,” which is separated from domestic issues and “diplomatic and global issues.” It could be interpreted that this deliberate positioning of cross-strait relations signals Tsai’s implicit goodwill to Beijing because she does not view cross-strait relations as “diplomatic issues” which cover relations with foreign countries. So the implicit message is that Taiwan’s relationship with mainland China is not the same as its relationship with a foreign country.
But it could also be interpreted differently. Beijing has always tried to confine the relevance and significance of cross-strait relations only between Taiwan and mainland China, and therefore, has always opposed any attempts to internationalize cross-strait relations. Now Tsai has seemed to define the relevance and significance of cross-strait relations in terms of regional peace and stability, which apparently involves other major powers such as the United States and Japan. This could be viewed as an implicit attempt to internationalize cross-strait relations beyond Taiwan and mainland China.
This interpretive ambiguity is not only found in the positioning of cross-strait relations in her address, but also a major characteristic of her whole discussion of cross-strait relations. While constrained by conflicting expectations from domestic mainstream public opinion, the mainland Chinese government and the United States government, interpretive ambiguity is the best strategy she could adopt.
Taiwan’s mainstream public opinion embraces a rising Taiwanese nationalism which has cherished Taiwan’s de facto independence from mainland China and has become increasingly alert to Beijing’s pro-unification efforts, and as a result, has been dissatisfied with the Ma Ying-jeou administration’s overly pro-Beijing policies. Consequently, Tsai’s “maintaining status-quo” China policy has been accepted by the majority of Taiwanese during the presidential election.
However, Beijing has set the Ma administration’s China policy as the role model for the Tsai administration, and firmly insisted that the “1992 consensus” or its core connotation of the one-China principle be the necessary political basis for this model.
For the first time Tsai confirmed that “[t]he new government will conduct cross-Strait affairs in accordance with the Republic of China Constitution, the Act Governing Relations between the People of Taiwan Area and the Mainland Area, and other relevant legislation.”
Washington claims that the US fundamental national interest is “the maintenance of peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait.”1 But it has never endorsed the Chinese government’s insistence on the “1992 consensus” as the necessary political basis for peaceful and stable cross-strait relations. On the other hand, Washington seems to have given tacit approval to Tsai’s “maintaining status-quo” China policy before and after Tsai won the presidential election.
Tsai talked about cross-strait relations in less than 400 words, only accounting for 6.7 percent of her almost 6000-word address. It is basically a reiteration of her “maintaining status-quo” China policy previously explained by her on several occasions in both Taiwan and the United States. She did not mention the “1992 consensus” or its core connotation of the one-China principle. Instead, she reiterated the existing four key elements as the political foundations for future cross-strait relations. On the other hand, she has also said she respects the 1992 talks as a historic fact and that she also supports the talks’ spirit and political attitude — “a spirit of mutual understanding and a political attitude of seeking common ground while setting aside differences.”
While these reiterations can generally satisfy the majority of her domestic audience and Washington, it will not — as shown in the past several months — mollify Beijing’s hostility. To signal some goodwill to Beijing while not alienating her supporters, for the first time Tsai confirmed that “[t]he new government will conduct cross-Strait affairs in accordance with the Republic of China Constitution, the Act Governing Relations between the People of Taiwan Area and the Mainland Area, and other relevant legislation.”
Because the Republic of China Constitution, and especially, the Act Governing Relations between the People of Taiwan Area and the Mainland Area are all based on the one-(Republic of) China principle, it might be interpreted that although Tsai does not accept the one-China principle openly, she would give tacit approval to the one-China principle in practice. Particularly, in February 2016 China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi said in the United States that Tsai “is elected on the basis of their current constitution, which still recognizes the mainland and Taiwan as one, the same China” and “It will be difficult to imagine that someone who is elected on the basis of that constitution should try to do anything in violation of their own constitution.”2 Therefore, Tsai seems to be implicitly but positively echoing Wang’s words in her inaugural address.
Taiwan: General Support for Tsai’s Address
After Tsai’s inauguration, major political forces in Taiwan basically responded to her address along their respective partisan lines. The Kuomingtang (KMT), which is still struggling to recover from its disastrous electoral defeat, was not able to organize any meaningful protest against Tsai’s address. It only lamented Tsai’s failure to recognize the “1992 consensus” as the political basis for the future development of cross-strait relations.3 Interestingly, the pro-unification People First Party’s caucus convener Lee Hung-chun believed that because Tsai mentioned the one-China principle-based Constitution, she actually accepted “one-China”, but that this “China” was the Republic of China.4
Within Tsai’s own Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), all the major party cadres unanimously supported her address, indicating Tsai’s successful power consolidation within the party. The spiritual leader of the old-generation pro-independence fundamentalists, former president Lee Teng-hui, gave “full marks” to Tsai’s address.5 So Tsai’s address also passed the old generation pro-independence camp’s scrutiny.
The New Power Party, the representative of the new-generation pro-independence fundamentalists, expects that Tsai should consistently and actively protect Taiwan’s “sovereignty,” start comprehensive constitutional reforms and develop normal “country-to-country” relations with China based on the popular public will.6 It seems that the new generation pro-independence camp will continue to pressure Tsai towards a more pro-independence stance.
Taiwan’s stock market fared surprisingly well on May 20. Actually, it was the first time that Taiwan’s stock market ended higher on the presidential inauguration day since the first one in 1996. Tsai’s ostensibly neutral and non-provocative stance on cross-strait relations is cited as a major contributing factor to this unexpectedly good stock market performance.7
The Taiwanese public’s response to Tsai’s address was basically positive as well. A post-inauguration survey showed that 46 percent of the respondents had viewed Tsai’s address, among whom 76 percent were satisfied with her address and 63 percent were satisfied with her statement on cross-strait relations. Among all the respondents, 60 percent were not worried about the possible negative consequences of Tsai’s avoidance of the “1992 consensus.”8
Mainland China: “Incomplete Test Answer”
In the afternoon after Tsai’s inauguration, Beijing’s Taiwan Affairs Office issued a statement on cross-strait relations, starting with a negative assessment of the current situation: “The current developments across the Taiwan Straits are becoming complex and grave.”9 The statement criticized Tsai for being “ambiguous about the fundamental issue, the nature of Cross-Straits relations… She did not explicitly recognize the 1992 Consensus and its core implications, and made no concrete proposal for ensuring the peaceful and stable growth of Cross-Straits relations. Hence, this is an incomplete test answer.”10
“An incomplete test answer” is not an entirely negative assessment of Tsai’s address. It may be argued that “an incomplete answer” is actually better than “an incorrect answer” which would lead to the door completely shut for future positive cross-strait interactions. Obviously Beijing was not satisfied with Tsai’s talk on cross-strait relations, but defining her talk as “an incomplete test answer” indicates that it has not given up the hope that Tsai might continue to finish the answer sheet with the one-China principle in the future. Therefore, the statement reminds Tsai that “[t]he Taiwan authorities must give explicit answer with concrete actions to all these major questions...”11
On the evening of May 20, the People’s Daily, the flagship newspaper of the Communist Party of China (CPC), issued a similar commentary on Tsai’s address. It said Tsai’s answer sheet was “incomplete” and urged her to stop taking an ambiguous attitude toward the fundamental issue. “We will not only listen to what she says, but also see what she will do,” said the People’s Daily.12 This suggests that Beijing will adopt a “wait and see” strategy towards the Tsai administration, which had been used to deal with the Chen Shui-bian administration during its opening period in 2000.
While these statements sound threatening to the Tsai administration, the real concern is what substantive impacts these statements may have on cross-strait activities, such as economic activities. To promote cross-strait activities, mainland China’s Taiwan Affairs Office and Association for Relations Across the Taiwan Straits (ARATS) has established institutional connections with its counterparts in Taiwan — the Mainland Affairs Council and the Straits Exchange Foundation (SEF) — for two and eight years, respectively. After Tsai’s inauguration, these institutional connections have been suspended until Beijing believes that Tsai has accepted the one-China principle.
Chinese government-linked scholars on Taiwan basically followed and justified the government’s statements on Tsai’s inaugural address. Nevertheless, some of them acknowledged Tsai’s implicit goodwill towards Beijing by citing her promise to “conduct cross-Strait affairs in accordance with the Republic of China Constitution, the Act Governing Relations between the People of Taiwan Area and the Mainland Area, and other relevant legislation.”13
The Chinese public is not allowed to discuss Tsai’s address freely. Live-casts of Tsai’s inauguration were prohibited, online posts on the inauguration were censored and those favoring Tsai’s address or Taiwan’s democracy were deleted by the online monitor team. As a result, myriad hawkish nationalist denouncements against Tsai have dominated online discussions on Tsai’s inauguration in China. Nevertheless, some young Chinese scholars in their WeChat groups argued that the Chinese government should have focused on solving China’s own problems before forcing Taiwan to join mainland China.
The United States: Opportunity for Closer Relations
Washington has always claimed that it maintains a one-China policy based on both the Three Joint Communiqués and the Taiwan Relations Act and that the maintenance of peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait is in the US fundamental national interest. However, it has never openly endorsed the “1992 consensus” as an indispensable political basis for peaceful and stable cross-strait relations.14 This stance has left Tsai some room to try alternative political foundations and approaches towards maintaining peaceful and stable cross-strait relations.
Washington has given tacit approval to Tsai’s “maintaining status-quo” China policy since Tsai’s presidential election campaign in late 2015. Not long before Tsai’s inauguration, the US National Security Council Senior Director for Asian Affairs Daniel Kritenbrink told reporters that “our hope is that both sides will continue to show flexibility going forward in the name of maintaining peace and stability.”15 This statement could be interpreted as “Beijing needs to show flexibility as well.”
Washington has tried to show a balanced stance between Taiwan and mainland China. Several days before the inauguration, the US Department of Defense released its annual report to Congress on the military power of China, claiming that “[t]he United States opposes any unilateral change to the status quo in the Taiwan Strait by either side and does not support Taiwan independence.”16
On the other hand, the United States Congress openly demonstrated its concern and assurance for Taiwan’s national security. On May 16, the US House of Representatives passed a concurrent resolution “reaffirming the Taiwan Relations Act and the Six Assurances as cornerstones of United States–Taiwan relations.” Although the passed version deleted one of the assurances in the original version that “the United States would not formally recognize Chinese sovereignty over Taiwan,”17 it may still be viewed as a reinforced commitment to help Taiwan protect its de facto independence from mainland China. This was the first time that the Six Assurances appeared in a resolution passed by the US Congress.18
Tsai told US congressmen attending a celebration party for her inauguration in Washington that building a partnership with the United States would be her administration’s first priority.
On May 18, the US House of Representatives approved its version of the 2017 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), with an amendment that directs the US Secretary of Defense to grant Taiwan observer status in the Rim of the Pacific Exercise (RIMPAC).19 The RIMPAC is the world's largest international maritime warfare exercise and China was invited to participate in 2016 as well.20 The approved bill also contains other measures to strengthen military-to-military relations with Taiwan.21
Tsai has consistently shown a strong interest in building closer political and economic relations with the United States to counter Beijing’s pro-unification efforts. In the evening right before her inauguration, through a video recording Tsai told the US congressmen attending a celebration party for her inauguration in Washington that building a partnership with the United States would be her administration’s first priority.22
On May 20, the US congratulated Tsai “on her inauguration as Taiwan’s fourth democratically elected president.” It also commended President Ma “for his success in strengthening US-Taiwan relations over the past eight years.”23
Rising competition between the United States and China has increased Taiwan’s strategic value to the US, which both Taiwan and mainland China must have clearly understood. Tsai will surely make good use of this opportunity to build closer relations with the United States to resist Beijing’s pressure.
Bumpy Road Ahead
Facing conflicting expectations from the Taiwanese society, Beijing and Washington, delivering an inaugural address that could satisfy all the three parties is a mission impossible. What Tsai has tried to achieve with her strategically ambiguous talk on cross-strait relations is to gain support from the Taiwanese public, acceptance from Washington, and tolerance from Beijing.
Her address has generally achieved the first two objectives with the last one half-accomplished, as hinted by Beijing’s “incomplete test answer” critique. Beijing has shown its tolerance by not labeling Tsai’s address as an “incorrect test answer,” but this tolerance is limited and conditional. Beijing will gradually raise its political, economic, and diplomatic pressures to push Tsai to complete the “answer sheet” in the future.
Tsai has inevitably prioritized economic development on her administration’s agenda for this is the Taiwanese people’ greatest concern. But the questions that nobody can give definite answers to are: first, if Beijing imposes economic penalties against Taiwan, to what extent will Taiwan’s economy be negatively impacted? Second, if Taiwan’s economy is severely shaken by these penalties, to what extent could Tsai still keep the “answer sheet” uncompleted? Last, if Tsai has to complete the “answer sheet” under great pressure, will she offer a “correct” answer appeasing Beijing, or an “incorrect” one angering it, just like her predecessor Chen Shui-bian did in 2002?
1. Cheng, R and Wu, L. (2016, April 1). US hopes cross-strait ties remain peaceful, stable under Tsai. Focus Taiwan. Retrieved from http://focustaiwan.tw/news/aipl/201604010022.aspx
2. Hsieh, C.C. and Hou, E. (2016, February 27). President Ma sees China’s remarks on ROC Constitution as positive. Focus Taiwan. Retrieved from http://focustaiwan.tw/news/acs/201602270014.aspx
3. Wang, C.C. and Wang, F. (2016, May 20). KMT laments Tsai's failure to recognize “92 consensus”. Focus Taiwan. Retrieved from http://focustaiwan.tw/news/aipl/201605200033.aspx
4. Cai Yingwen jiuzhi yanjiang, luying dalao liting guomingdang youdian yihan [Tsai Ing-wen inaugural speech: Pro-independence old guards showed support but KMT felt slight regret]. (2016, May 21). iFeng.com. Retrieved from http://news.ifeng.com/a/20160521/48816655_0.shtml
5. Cai Yingwen de yanshuo, Li Denghui da yibaifen [Tsai Ing-wen speech: Lee Teng-hui gives it full marks]. (2016, May 20). Zaobao.sg. Retrieved from http://www.zaobao.com.sg/realtime/china/story20160520-619463
6. Shili: Pan Cai yu lu fazhan zhengchang “guoyuguo” guanxi [New Power Party: Hope that Tsai will develop normal “country to country” relations with Mainland]. (2016, May 20). DWNews.com. Retrieved from http://taiwan.dwnews.com/news/2016-05-20/59740504.html
7. Wang, L. (2016, May 21). Market ends higher after inauguration. Taipei Times. Retrieved from http://www.taipeitimes.com/News/biz/archives/2016/05/21/2003646727
8. Lianhebao mindiao: Cai ying chengren 92 gongshi; 39.6% zancheng 29.7% fandui [United News survey: Should Tsai recognize the 1992 consensus; 39.6% agree, 29.7% disagree]. (2016, May 23). UDN.com. Retrieved from http://goo.gl/Tbo9PY
9. Full text of mainland's Taiwan affairs authorities’ statement on cross-Straits relations. (2016, May 20). Xinhuanet. Retrieved from http://news.xinhuanet.com/english/2016-05/20/c_135375950.htm
12. People's Daily stresses 1992 Consensus as Taiwan leader takes office. (2016, May 20). People’s Daily Online. Retrieved from http://en.people.cn/n3/2016/0520/c90780-9061030.html
13. Cai Yingwen 520 jianghua guoguan le ma? [Has Tsai Ing-wen’s 520 speech passed the test?]. (2016, May 21). iFeng.com. Retrieved from http://blog.ifeng.com/article/44817276.html?touping
14. Cole, J. M. (2016, May 19). The US position on the “1992 Consensus”: Why it matters. The Diplomat. Retrieved from http://thediplomat.com/2015/05/the-us-position-on-the-1992-consensus-why-it-matters/
15. Lowther, W. (2016, May 20). US urges flexibility on cross-strait ties. Taipei Times. Retrieved from http://www.taipeitimes.com/News/taiwan/archives/2016/05/20/2003646693/1
16. Office of the Secretary of Defense. (2016, April 26). Military and security developments involving the People’s Republic of China 2016. Retrieved from http://goo.gl/c1GvuL
17. The US Congress. (2015, October 28). Reaffirming the Taiwan Relations Act and the Six Assurances as cornerstones of United States-Taiwan relations. Retrieved from https://www.congress.gov/bill/114th-congress/house-concurrent-resolution/88/text/ih
18. US House reaffirms its support for Taiwan. (2016, May 18). The China Post. Retrieved from http://www.chinapost.com.tw/taiwan/foreign-affairs/2016/05/18/466520/US-House.htm
19. Liao, T. and Chen, C. (2016, May 20). U.S. House passes amendment to invite Taiwan to RIMPAC. Focus Taiwan. Retrieved from http://focustaiwan.tw/news/aipl/201605200035.aspx; Lin, E. (2016, May 21). US House green-lights Taiwan RIMPAC invite. Focus Taiwan. Retrieved from
20. Eckstein, M. (2016, April 18). SECDEF Carter: China still invited to RIMPAC 2016 despite South China Sea tension. USNI News. Retrieved from https://news.usni.org/2016/04/18/secdef-carter-china-still-invited-to-rimpac-2016-despite-south-china-sea-tension
21. Lin, E. (2016, May 21). US House green-lights Taiwan RIMPAC invite. Focus Taiwan. Retrieved from
22. Cai Yingwen: Miqie Meitai huoban guanxi wei xinzhengfu youxian zhengce [Tsai Ing-wen: Close US-Taiwan relations is priority policy of new government]. (2016, May 26). VOA Chinese. Retrieved from http://www.voachinese.com/content/us-taiwan-security/3339602.html
23. Department of State. (2016, May 20). U.S. statement on Taiwan’s presidential inauguration. Retrieved from http://www.state.gov/r/pa/prs/ps/2016/05/257465.htm