Taiwan should stabilise cross-Strait relations by emphasising a Chinese identity, but refrain from discussing an eventual political solution in its conflict with China, a presidential hopeful from the opposition Kuomintang has said.
“We want to, first of all, pull back to the line that we are all part of the Chinese nation,” Eric Chu, the frontrunner to be KMT’s candidate in next January’s presidential elections, told the Financial Times in an interview.
The pledge signalled to Beijing the KMT hoped to return to the mode of cross-Strait relations under Ma Ying-jeou, the KMT president until 2016, who pushed closer economic and cultural integration with China.
China claims Taiwan as its territory and threatens to invade if the island resists unification indefinitely. Since Tsai Ing-wen, who stresses safeguarding Taiwan’s de facto independence, succeeded Mr Ma in 2016, Beijing has upped diplomatic isolation and military threats. The upcoming election will show whether the KMT’s offer to simply go back to Mr Ma’s stance can satisfy China, which is growing increasingly impatient about Taiwan’s future.
Mr Chu, seen as the most moderate and the most popular among the four men vying for the KMT’s nomination according to polls, said such long-term issues were not on the agenda for now.
“The most important aspiration of the Taiwanese people today is peace, cross-Straits co-operation and economic development,” he said. “As we haven’t even seen peace, co-operation and prosperity, our people won’t consider immediately talking about the next phase.”
The remarks highlight the party’s dilemma: it wants to present itself as a political force the Chinese Communist party can trust and with which it can work. But is also needs the support of a Taiwanese public that remains firmly opposed to becoming a part of China.
The KMT should be in pole position: support for Ms Tsai has plummeted since her 2016 landslide election victory. In November’s local elections, KMT candidates triumphed over those from Ms Tsai’s Democratic Progressive party in several regions.
But in next year’s race, different rules will apply. The local elections were driven by a range of domestic issues, including social and economic concerns. In Taiwan’s presidential ballot, by contrast, relations with China typically take centre stage.
And that might well be the KMT’s Achilles heel. In past campaigns, the DPP has often exploited the KMT’s past as a party founded in China that dragged Taiwan into its conflict with the Communist party after losing the Chinese civil war and fleeing to the island in 1949. The party’s 2016 election defeat was driven by voter fears that Mr Ma had made Taiwan too economically dependent on China and might compromise its independence.
Since then, the party has been struggling to find a new internal consensus on China policy.
Beijing has made things more difficult for the KMT: in a speech in January, Chinese president Xi Jinping described the “1992 consensus”, a phrase the Communist party and the KMT have used to describe an ambiguous understanding on Taiwan being part of one China, as the two territories belonging to one China and working towards unification. Mr Xi also spoke about “one country, two systems” as a model for Taiwan, referring to the formula Beijing has used in Hong Kong that critics say has been a tool to encroach on civil liberties in the former British colony.
“Xi’s speech has had a pretty significant effect in Taiwan and has put the KMT in an awkward position,” said Dafydd Fell, director of the Centre for Taiwan Studies at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London. “So far, no serious politician has spoken positively in Taiwan about ‘one country, two systems’ and public opinion has been opposed to the idea.”
He added: “The KMT needs to avoid gaining the reputation that it is too extreme or pro-China, especially given Tsai’s moderate positions and proximity to the median voter on national identity questions.”
As the KMT prepares for the presidential campaign, the fallout of Mr Xi’s speech has already wreaked havoc.
“He took away all the space for ambiguity, and that puts us in a very difficult situation,” said Su Chi, one of the KMT’s veteran China policy experts and a former national security adviser to Mr Ma.
Party chairman Wu Den-yih, in an apparent attempt to respond to Mr Xi, said last week that he supported pursuing talks about a peace agreement with China — a proposal seen as a stepping stone towards unification. The DPP immediately attacked him as selling out Taiwan’s interests, and other potential KMT candidates have cautiously distanced themselves.
Apart from Mr Chu and Mr Wu, Wang Jin-pyng, a former speaker of the legislature, and Chou Hsi-wei, a former deputy party chairman, are competing to become the KMT’s candidate. A fifth, the populist Han Kuo-yu who won a landslide victory in the November mayoral race in the DPP stronghold of Kaohsiung, Taiwan’s third-biggest city, is seen as having an outside chance.
Taipei mayor Ko Wen-je, an independent, might run for president and is considered more popular than both Ms Tsai and all other KMT candidates. Opinion polls published by some Taiwanese media show Mr Han as the only potential KMT politician who could beat him.
Mr Chu refused to speak about unification, and said Taiwanese politicians should not allow Beijing to drive the country’s political debate.
Mr Han, the outspoken Kaohsiung mayor, is more straightforward about the risks of being too close to Beijing. “At this time, any politician who utters the word ‘unification’ is at odds with the majority of the Taiwanese people,” he told foreign journalists last week. “If you insist on raising this concept, you will be going against the broad Taiwanese people. At this moment, unification has no market in Taiwan at all.”
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