May 20 will mark the inauguration of Taiwan's new President. Tsai Ing-wen will become the first female president of the Republic of China. This historic landmark, however, is overshadowed by the potential implications of her election, not as the first female president, but as the representative of Taiwan's Democratic Progressive Party (DPP).
The DPP is a pro-independence leaning party that is taking control of the government from the Nationalist Party (KMT). The KMT, on the other hand, was formed on the mainland before the Chinese Civil War drove them to Taiwan, where the KMT reestablished itself as the Republic of China (ROC). This long history with the mainland stands in stark contrast to the DPP's primarily Taiwan-born base.
Recent Chinese assertiveness in the South China Sea has been the cause of increased international concern and American worry. While Chinese patrols, island reclamations, and other actions in the disputed waters of the South China Sea have angered its neighbors and caused strong reactions from the U.S., the change in leadership in Taiwan presents an even greater potential source of tension in the region. Tsai's inauguration ushers in the leadership of a party who wants to further distinguish Tawian and the Taiwanese people from the mainland.
When it comes to Taiwan, there is a lot more at stake than there is in the South China Sea. For China, it is about more than grandstanding over a few uninhabited rocks in an effort to demonstrate power and save face. Taiwan is not just symbolic. The People's Republic of China (PRC) sees Taiwan as part of "One China." Any claims or actions that suggest otherwise are viewed as threats to the key Chinese priorities of sovereignty and territorial integrity and are met with harsh reactions from the leadership and popular nationalist sentiments on the mainland.
Of course, the idea of "One China" is not a new one. Yet, in recent years Cross-Strait tensions have taken a backseat to other disputes and challenges in the Asia Pacific. For the past eight years, Taiwan's president has been the KMT's Ma Ying-jeou. During his first inauguration in 2008, Ma endorsed the 1992 Consensus between the People's Republic of China and the Republic of China (Taiwan). This was an agreement that had been made between representatives of the PRC and the KMT indicating that both sides support the "One China" principle but have their own interpretations of what that principle means. Ma further went on to outline his stance towards Cross-Strait relations as one of "no unification, no independence, and no use of force."
Unlike the KMT, the DPP has not supported the 1992 Consensus in the past, especially given its ambiguity. That same ambiguity, however, and President Ma's support of it, has allowed for an unprecedented level of Cross-Strait peace and engagement. A push away from the 1992 Consensus would jeopardize the strides that have been made. When Ma's predecessor, the DPP's President Chen Shui-bian, was in office he repudiated the 1992 Consensus, leading to strained relations and limited contact with the mainland that was only eased when Ma came into office and endorsed the 1992 Consensus.
Given China's growing assertiveness and nationalism, the potential blow back from a similar repudiation being made today is daunting, especially considering Taiwan's increased economic ties to the mainland and the PRC's impressive global influence. In light of the DPP election, the PRC has already started taking steps to assert its sovereignty over Taiwan, establishing official diplomatic ties with the previously unaligned Gambia and exerting its influence to have Taiwanese nationals deported to the mainland. A clear indication that Tsai plans to continue the 1992 Consensus would go a long way to alleviate PRC fears and moderate its actions.
As long as Tsai does not declare independence, the PRC will have the latitude to hold off on taking military action. However, my personal view is that, with the departure of President Ma and his efforts to improve Cross-Strait ties, the mainland has lost its chance for a peaceful resolution of the Cross-Strait conflict. The Taiwanese today do not see themselves as Chinese and are increasing their efforts to move away from the mainland. I do not see unification happening in the future without the use force. The most we can hope for is the continuation of the status quo for a little while longer.
A continuation of the 1992 Consensus also best serves American interests. Although the 1992 Consensus is not officially endorsed by the U.S. government, its message and President Ma's "three no's" align closely to the 1972 Shanghai Communiqué, which served as the basis for U.S. rapprochement with the PRC. The Shanghai Communiqué was a compromise between the U.S. and China. It supported the idea of "One China" while maintaining that any resolution of this conflict should not be made unilaterally or by force. If incoming President Tsai rejects the 1992 Consensus it will put the U.S. in the difficult position between supporting its ally and preserving the already fragile U.S.-China relationship.
Ambiguous language, agreeing to disagree, and deferring the resolution of the Cross-Strait conflict for a later date create a major pillar of U.S.-China relations that has effectively prevented a military confrontation in the Taiwan Strait. If Tsai Ing-wen speaks out against the 1992 Consensus during her inaugural address, that pillar will crumble, placing regional stability at risk. What would the U.S. do then? Would we continue our support of the Shanghai Communiqué and chastise Taiwan for its unilateral action or would we wait for the PRC to retaliate and risk our own troops and national interests to provide military aid to Taiwan? Hopefully, President Tsai will display restraint during her inaugural address and prevent the U.S. from being thrust into the middle of yet another international conflict we do not want.