Shelley Rigger
Shelley Rigger is the Brown Professor of East Asian Politics, chair of Chinese Studies, and assistant dean for educational policy at Davidson College.

On May 20, 2016, Tsai Ing-wen took the oath of office to become the fourth directly elected president of the Republic of China (ROC), which is commonly referred to as Taiwan. Tsai’s inaugural address was clearly aimed at stabilizing and even advancing the relationship between Taipei and Beijing. But despite her efforts at reassurance, it may be difficult to preserve the recent gains in cross-strait relations.

The eagerly awaited address contained few surprises. She called attention to a long list of challenges facing Taiwan, and she urged Taiwanese people to have patience with the new government as it works its way through that difficult agenda.

Tsai’s address followed the template laid out in her presidential campaign. She devoted most of the speech to Taiwan’s internal issues and problems: transitional justice, opportunities for young people, social welfare concerns, and economic challenges.

The discussion of relations between Taiwan and China was relatively brief; it too mostly repeated themes from the campaign. Tsai said nothing that could be perceived as an attempt to institutionalize or advance the separation of Taiwan from China—no moves toward de jure independence. Instead, the most novel element in the speech was a reference that reinforces Taiwan’s status as a Chinese entity. It wasn’t what Beijing was hoping for, but it was an intriguing gesture. The People’s Republic of China (PRC) was hoping Tsai would acknowledge the 1992 Consensus, a tacit agreement between Taipei and Beijing that both Taiwan and the mainland are part of a single Chinese nation, the precise interpretation of which differs on the two sides. Tsai made no mention of the consensus, but she did say her policy would be guided by a 1992 ROC law called the Act Governing Relations between the People of the Taiwan Area and the Mainland Area, a document she had not previously mentioned.

A Golden Age?

The past eight years under the leadership of Ma Ying-jeou in Taiwan have seemingly been a golden age in cross-strait relations. Since 2008, there has been more economic cooperation, more political dialogue, and more social interaction than ever before. Taipei and Beijing have finalized two dozen economic agreements, cross-strait travel and tourism have reached new heights, and collaboration between working-level government officials has become standard operating procedure.

During the Ma era, policymakers on both sides (and in other countries) were able to turn their attention to other issues. They were freed from worrying about a possible crisis in the Taiwan Strait.

Now, as the new administration takes office, both sides are showing doubts about how much longer this apparent golden age can continue.

But what has been called a golden age was never truly golden. Although the two sides chose for pragmatic reasons to overlook their differences, those differences were substantial, even during the Ma era. Beijing’s Taiwan policy makers believed Ma shared their goal of bringing the two sides closer, so they were willing to sidestep the toughest issues. But they are deeply skeptical about Tsai, whose Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) has a history of advocating for Taiwanese independence. Tsai’s arrival may make the differences between the two sides more visible, but the truth is, they’ve been there all along.

During the Ma era, Beijing and Taipei used the 1992 Consensus to conceal a yawning gap between their positions. The consensus purports to reflect an agreement the two sides’ representatives reached at a series of meetings in Hong Kong that year. The representatives agreed that both sides believed Taiwan to be part of China, but decided to leave unspecified what was meant by the word China. To the PRC, the 1992 Consensus means Taipei accepts the mainland view that Taiwan is part of the PRC; to Taiwan, the essence of the consensus is the PRC’s willingness to allow Taiwan to have its own concept of what China is. The contrivance of the 1992 Consensus only works as long as neither side listens too closely to what the other is saying.

Beijing would prefer to keep this foundation untouched. It has made Tsai’s endorsement of the 1992 Consensus a requirement for continuing the positive interactions that flourished under former president Ma Ying-jeou, because it finds the agreement a convenient formula—vague enough to reassure a wide range of audiences.

But Tsai and her DPP allies cannot quite accept the 1992 Consensus. One might say Tsai’s policy is asymptotic to the accord: she can get infinitely close, but never touch it.

Tsai’s Approach

The inaugural address exemplified this approach. Tsai said that the 1992 meetings “arrived at various joint acknowledgements and understandings” and that she “respect[s] this historical fact.” Respecting a historical fact is as close as one can get to accepting it without actually doing so; citing “joint acknowledgements and understandings” is as close as one can get to the idea of consensus without actually using the word itself.

Tsai’s speech repeated many other elements of her long-standing approach as well. She characterized the 1992 meetings as having been conducted “in a spirit of mutual understanding and a political attitude of seeking common ground while setting aside differences.” The talks made possible “over twenty years of interactions and negotiations across the Strait [that] have enabled and accumulated outcomes which both sides must collectively cherish and sustain.”

Tsai also restated the “existing political foundations” for cross-strait relations: “the fact of the 1992 talks between the two institutions representing each side across the Strait,” “the existing Republic of China constitutional order,” “the outcomes of over twenty years of negotiations and interactions across the Strait,” and “the democratic principle and prevalent will of the people of Taiwan.”

If most of the speech was familiar, there was at least one intriguing new element: the mention of a 1992 ROC law governing cross-strait relations. Tsai said, “The 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.” As best as can be determined, Tsai never mentioned this law in the year leading up to the election and her inauguration, so its addition to the speech is noteworthy.

The 1992 law mentioned by Tsai established the institutions through which Taiwan has conducted its relationship with the mainland for the past twenty-four years. It established the Mainland Affairs Council as a cabinet-level agency for cross-strait matters, and it set the parameters within which unofficial, quasi-official, and even—during the Ma administration— working-level official interactions were conducted.

But what makes the law interesting today is its clear definition of the ROC as a government that claims territory both on the mainland and in Taiwan, and its mention of unification. Its stated  purpose is as follows: “This Act is specially enacted for the purposes of ensuring the security and public welfare in the Taiwan Area, regulating dealings between the peoples of the Taiwan Area and the Mainland Area, and handling legal matters arising therefrom before national unification.” The law defines the Taiwan Area as the main island of Taiwan, as well as the nearby islands of Penghu, Jinmen, and Mazu (all of which are administered from Taipei); the Mainland Area is defined as “the territory of the Republic of China outside the Taiwan Area.”

PRC leaders could interpret Tsai’s mention of this law negatively—after all, they do not recognize the existence of the ROC.

Nonetheless, a positive interpretation is also possible. Tsai has indicated that she does not reject the concept of the ROC and of its connection to China. By mentioning this law as a touchstone for her policy, she is tethering her leadership to a long-standing interpretation—enshrined in Taiwan’s constitution and laws—that links Taiwan to China.

Beijing’s response to Tsai’s inaugural address suggests that it is not impressed by this development; it graded her performance “incomplete.” The leaders of the PRC were hoping for a clear endorsement of the 1992 Consensus; what they got was almost that but not quite, and a new element made its debut.

It is important to note that this new element steps away from de jure independence, in that it affirms the ROC’s traditional self-definition. Beijing should give it careful attention.

Optimism and Realism Ahead

Three developments, in particular, lead to the conclusion that even if Tsai had recited the magic words “1992 Consensus” in her inaugural address, cross-strait relations would still be in for a rocky time.

First, even if Taiwan’s leaders were willing to accept the 1992 agreement, there is no consensus about the consensus among Taiwan’s public. Many Taiwanese people agree that having a formula that allows relations to move forward is positive and useful, but few are comfortable with the content of the 1992 Consensus as Beijing understands it—as an acknowledgement that Taiwan is part of the same China that is embodied in the PRC state.

In this context, Tsai’s refusal to hide Taiwan’s reality behind the fig leaf of the 1992 Consensus carries risks, but it also has the virtue of honesty. During the so-called golden age, messages from the Taiwanese side tended to understate the Taiwanese public’s skepticism of the mainland. Tsai’s message may be less comforting to decisionmakers on the mainland, but it will allow them to formulate policy based on an accurate assessment of the conditions they face.

Second, Taiwan’s experiences under Ma Ying-jeou already revealed the limits of Beijing’s friendliness—the supposed golden age was tarnished by the PRC’s reluctance to bestow benefits that Taiwan might pocket. For example, Ma prioritized efforts to improve cross-strait relations ahead of attempts to expand Taiwan’s international space, such as seeking to participate in international organizations. He defended his approach by claiming that the PRC would reward these steps by removing obstacles to Taiwan’s international participation, including green-lighting new bilateral trade agreements for Taiwan. In fact, however, through eight years of cross-strait warming, Taiwan’s international space expanded very little. Taiwan’s political isolation and economic marginalization have not abated. And as a result, Taiwanese people are increasingly worried that the island has become overdependent on the mainland for its economic survival.

It is hardly surprising, then, that Tsai’s economic proposals focus on escaping marginalization and overdependence. She is more focused on joining the Trans-Pacific Partnership (a multilateral trade agreement for Pacific Rim states in the Americas and East Asia) and reorienting Taiwan’s industry toward Southeast Asia than she is on continuing to cultivate economic ties with the PRC. These developments may be unwelcome in Beijing, but they are driven by the perception in Taiwan that the PRC will not help Taiwan to thrive economically no matter what, so the island must look outward for its economic future.

Third, it is unlikely that policymakers in Beijing would trust Tsai even if she had embraced the 1992 Consensus, so accepting it would likely have been an empty gesture—costly at home and of little value across the strait.

PRC leaders distrust Tsai for personal reasons—her connections to another of Taiwan’s former presidents, Lee Teng-hui, and her involvement in his Two-States Theory are two of the biggest factors—as well as her affiliation with the DPP. The DPP emerged from Taiwan’s pro-democracy movement in the 1980s as a strong advocate for democratization and a government focused, not on the long-standing Kuomintang project of unifying China under the ROC flag, but on serving the needs of the Taiwanese people. The strongest statement of the DPP’s attachment to Taiwan as an end in itself was its 1991 platform plank calling for Taiwan to sever its ties with China and seek recognition as an independent state. The DPP no longer advocates for de jure independence, but many of its supporters still nurture dreams of an independent Taiwan, and the party has so far been unable to remove or even freeze the independence plank of its platform.

This attachment to the independence cause is a central reason why PRC leaders do not trust Tsai—or any DPP politician. Even though endorsing the 1992 Consensus would not have been enough to overcome Beijing’s suspicion of Tsai, her refusal to do so reinforces Beijing’s perception that the adjustments in DPP policy are tactics aimed at buying time so the party can pursue its ultimate goal of formal independence.

It is in this context that Tsai’s decision to highlight the law governing relations between the two areas in her most important speech since being elected is especially intriguing. If Tsai’s goal were to push forward de jure independence, she would hardly begin by embracing a law that sets cross-strait relations on a foundation that defines Taiwan and the mainland as parts of a single entity.

For cross-strait relations, the golden age may not be a reality, but the door is open for a silver age characterized by optimism and tempered by realism.

Shelley Rigger is the Brown Professor of East Asian Politics, chair of Chinese Studies, and assistant dean for educational policy at Davidson College.