Alan Romberg on Taiwan’s elections

Alan Romberg is a Distinguished Fellow and the Director of the East Asia program at Stimson. Before joining Stimson in September 2000, he enjoyed a distinguished career working on Asian issues including 27 years in the State Department, with over 20 years as a U.S. Foreign Service Officer. Additionally, Romberg spent almost 10 years as the CV Starr Senior Fellow for Asian Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, and was special assistant to the secretary of the navy. Mr. Romberg was interviewed by Glenys Kirana '16 on Feb. 3, 2016.

Alan Romberg is a Distinguished Fellow and the Director of the East Asia program at Stimson. Before joining Stimson in September 2000, he enjoyed a distinguished career working on Asian issues including 27 years in the State Department, with over 20 years as a U.S. Foreign Service Officer. Additionally, Romberg spent almost 10 years as the CV Starr Senior Fellow for Asian Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, and was special assistant to the secretary of the navy. Mr. Romberg was interviewed by Glenys Kirana '16 on Feb. 3, 2016.

Having swept both the presidential and parliamentary elections in Taiwan last month, the DPP has an opportunity to quickly implement its electoral platforms. Which campaign promises can we expect the DPP to fulfill in the following year once President-elect Tsai takes office? How is Su Jia-chyuan’s (widely seen as a close ally of Tsai) position as speaker of the house likely to help/detract from her campaign promises? 

That's both an important and a difficult question, primarily because the issues that Tsai Ing-Wen has vowed to take on are difficult issues. She has promised to restore, reinvigorate and restructure the economy . She also wants to have more equitable benefits for society. That’s a very heavy agenda, and it is not all in the hands of people in Taiwan. The international economy and the Mainland's economy will have a very big role to play in whatever opportunities there may be to expand Taiwan's own economy. President-elect Tsai has laid out lists of economic, social, and industrial goals that she wants to turn to very promptly, and she will indeed try to do that. The fact that the legislature now has a DPP majority, and a friendly but politically neutral speaker, will help her. Though there are some tactics that the KMT can employ to block things, most likely these would not engage in the kind of obstructionist  behavior that the DPP has used in the last few years. From that point of view, she ought to get support to carry out some of those reforms. But, given the circumstances in which Taiwan currently finds itself, it remains to be seen whether Tsai is really going to be able to move boldly forward.

On the economic front, how do you expect relations between China and Taiwan to change under a Tsai presidency? Do you expect Taiwan to reduce its dependence on China?  Is this desirable or feasible?

First of all, if the Chinese Mainland economy continues to slow down, that will create some issues for Taiwan. However, President Ma Ying-jeou did try to diversify, and he likes to point out that export dependence on the Mainland grew substantially in percentage from 23 percent to about 40 percent under Chen Shui-Bian, President Ma’s predecessor, whereas during his administration, while the absolute number has grown, Taiwan’s export dependency on the Mainland market has remained at 39-40 percent So, this is the condition that Ma inherited, and this is where he left off. Ma did try to diversify, but it is not easy. Tsai will try to diversify, and that will not be easy, either. There is a cultural natural affinity between Taiwan and Mainland business leaders, and competition may be more intense in Southeast Asia. Nonetheless, Taiwan has done pretty well both in investing and trading in Southeast Asia and some other places. Tsai has made clear that her administration will try to do more. How successful she will be we will have to see. Part of the issue is that the Mainland has made things difficult for Taiwan to negotiate free trade agreements or comprehensive economic cooperation agreements with other countries. Although under Ma they were able to negotiate a couple, with Singapore and New Zealand, as well as some more specific agreements with others,  it appears that negotiation of comprehensive accords with other countries has been stymied, to some extent, by the Mainland., This has proven to be an obstacle for the Ma administration, and it could well prove to be an obstacle for the Tsai administration.

Regarding the Trans-Pacific Partnership, it is currently not open for Taiwan to or anyone else to apply. But when it does open, all 12 original members will have to agree to an application. If the PRC, for whatever reason, wants to stand in the way of that, I believe they can do that. But they might well pay a price in terms of public opinion in Taiwan., I do not think the US would block it if Taiwan is meritorious of TPP accession. With regard to the Regional Cooperation Economic Partnership (RCEP), in which Beijing plays a substantial central role in and which Taiwan also wants to join, Taiwan would continue to face similar problems. Any suggestions that somehow the PRC does not matter for Taiwan’s ability to join such groupings, I think, are either self-delusional or misleading. China’s role as a market, a place for investment, a source of investment into Taiwan, and as a player in Taiwan’s aspirations bilaterally with other countries and also in regional organizations, is substantial. 

One of the other issues that the Mainland has raised about regional organizations – and we saw this with the WTO – was that the PRC did not want Taiwan to enter into that kind of an arrangement ahead of itself, even if Beijing is basically okay with Taiwan joining. At this point, the PRC is interested in TPP but it is nowhere prepared to join it. So if it insisted on going first, that by itself would be an obstacle for Taiwan. Ma Ying-jeou raised this issue when he met with Xi Jinping  in Singapore, arguing to Xi that the precedence of accession is not a condition that the Mainland should insist upon. I do not think he got any particular assurances on that. Taiwan also wants to join the AIIB, and Xi Jinping has said at least twice that it's fine, as have other senior Chinese officials. But they have also said that Taiwan needs to join in what they call an “appropriate capacity,” or under an “appropriate name,” and that means not as an independent nation.

All of these are sensible, legitimate aspirations for Taiwan to have, whether it's diversification, bilateral agreements, or whatever else it may be, and it is necessary to Taiwan’s future prosperity., But it is not going to be simple.

Beijing has made clear that whatever happens to quasi-official channels that exist between the two sides of the Strait after Tsai Ingwen takes office, it wants to maintain strong channels with the private sector in Taiwan. Beijing wants to maintain a strong influence through market availability and openness to investment from Taiwan’s private sector. But normally doing so would require them to also maintain strong relations at the quasi-official level, which includes governmental organizations that review any problems in implementing those agreements.  Under Chen Shui-Bian, when quasi-official channels were severed, Beijing tried to work around the problem by dealing directly with industrial organizations or firms. But these negotiations also included officials in a non-official capacity. After all, as I say, government action is important to ensure proper implementation of these arrangements. Now, the question is whether Beijing would be willing to do that going forward.

While Ms. Tsai’s campaign suggests a cautious stance on Taiwan-China relations, she has not reaffirmed the 1992 consensus. Do you expect the new administration to take any steps in promoting Taiwan’s formal independence?

The big issue with Beijing has been whether Tsai would endorse the so-called 1992 consensus. The heart of the consensus is the agreement that there is One China, and opposition to Taiwan independence. Under Ma’s administration, he adopted an approach called “One China, respective interpretation.” It is not Beijing’s preference, but it has worked.

Tsai has declined over a very long period of time to acknowledge that the 1992 consensus even exists, and when she has implied perhaps it does, she has raised questions about what it meant and so on. Last June, in a speech she gave in CSIS in Washington, DC,, she talked about a couple of things which were critical to reassure Beijing that she was not going to do something dramatic – like pursue Taiwan independence – or that she would even deny, reject or overturn what has been accomplished since 2008. She has also said that she would base her policies on accumulated outcomes, policy discussions and exchanges over the past “more than twenty years,” meaning going back to the time when the two sides met in 1992. What she was doing was referring to the 1992 consensus without explicitly recognizing and endorsing it.

Since her election, she has taken another half step forward in an interview she did with The Liberty Times. There were a couple of key points: she talked about the 1992 meeting, the understandings, the acknowledgements that came out of that meeting and she said understood and respected them as an historical fact. In response, the Taiwan Affairs Office in Beijing did not put her down, but it did reiterate the PRC’s position about the centrality of the 1992 consensus and recognition of One China. One particularly important scholar noted that all Tsai was doing was “fine tuning,” and that she had evaded the central issue of whether she accepts that the essence of the 1992 consensus, i.e., that Taiwan and the Mainland belong to the one and same China.

However, even if other aspects of cross-Strait relations do not move forward smoothly, I do not anticipate a security crisis. I find it impossible to consider that Tsai would do anything that would trigger a security reaction from the Mainland. The 2005 Anti-Secession Law that the Mainland passed included conditions that would trigger employment of non-peaceful means, but Tsai is not going to do any of that.

You mentioned that her position probably will not change until her inauguration in May. Do you think that in her course of presidency it is likely to change? How is she going to balance the different interests with regards to relations with China? 

She certainly is trying to balance the requirements to maintain a good relationship with Beijing with what is politically acceptable within Taiwan, since she has pledged many times over to basing her presidency on democratic principles and the will of the people. She has also said that she will not base her policies on one political party, so even if she shares many of the DPP’s values she is not tying herself to the DPP agenda. Tsai would not feel true to her pledge about democracy if she went too far in the PRC’s direction. We know through public opinion polls not only that there is a very strong commitment by people to maintain the status quo, but also strong opposition to unification. There is some support for independence but not overwhelming by any means, so there is not a great compulsion to move in that direction. As she moves into the presidency, she is going to have to continue to balance these considerations.

Getting a stronger commitment to One China is a major goal of Xi, but how it will play out remain unknown. Both Xi and Tsai cannot be seen as weak on the principles, but if they can find a space in which they both can adhere to principle and still meet the minimal needs of the other side, that would be the sweet spot; whether that is really doable, we will find out in time.

President Ma’s recent visit to Itu Aba in the South China Sea elicited a negative reaction not only from the China but also from the United States, Vietnam, the Philippines, and other countries in the region. How should we understand this decision and the timing of President Ma’s visit? 

Ma has talked about going there before, but there were a number of factors that I do not necessarily understand. Keep in mind that the Philippines has filed a case in the international tribunal under the law of sea convention, which is primarily focused on PRC behavior. One of the things that the Philippines said is that Itu Aba (or Taiping) is only an island in the narrow sense, that it is a "rock" which is not capable of sustaining human habitation. Under the Law of the Sea Convention, if it is determined to be only a rock, it would not merit either a 200 nautical mile Exclusive Economic Zone or a continental shelf. Based on what seems pretty clear about the nature of Itu Aba, I do not see how the Philippines can succeed with that claim. However, Taiwan has not been invited to present its views, though it has produced papers to disprove the Philippines’ assertion. Beijing also has not presented its views, although it has also done papers and has submitted its views.

Much has been made of the appeal of the DPP and President-elect Tsai to younger voters.  How significant for Taiwanese domestic politics is the DPP’s popularity with younger generations? Does this simply reflect a temporary realignment in electoral politics or does it potentially represent a more fundamental shift in identity or interests in Taiwanese society.

Identity is a tricky thing. Even during the Ma administration, Ma was elected with a record vote, more than Tsai Ing-Wen got this time. Up until that point, there has been a pretty even split between those who viewed themselves as Taiwanese only and those who call themselves both Taiwanese and Chinese. (The proportion of people who identify themselves as Chinese only is going down.) Over the course of Ma's administration, the number of those who consider themselves as Taiwanese only has only grown.  

But the meaning of Taiwanese identity needs to be considered. I  would caution that we not assume that Taiwanese identity means only pro-DPP and anti-KMT. Rather, in this election, I think that the KMT’s failure seems to have stemmed from the perception that the Ma administration had performed badly. Ma personally was seen as being aloof and his administration was seen as unresponsive and not interactive enough with society. My own view is that a lot of Ma’s policies made sense, though they were not necessarily implemented in politically adept ways.

In particular, young people tend to be more strongly associated with the DPP and are very dismissive of the KMT. Part of this is that young people in their late teens and mid-20s have very high unemployment rates (12-13%). This is not true for people in the upper 20s and beyond, as unemployment rate for that group stands below six percent.

Moreover, the heavy turnout of younger voters was very important to Tsai’s success (and presumably the success of a number of DPP LY candidates). Another factor in the result, perhaps affecting as many as three seats in the LY, was the case involving the teenage singer with the Korean rock group who was pressured into apologizing for wrapping herself in an ROC flag – which infuriated Taiwanese across the board. While it is not easily explicable, the anger people felt redounded to the benefit of the DPP. Perhaps it had to do with the perception that the Ma administration and the KMT had been too solicitous of the Mainland and this was an example of how the Mainland responded.

People have pointed out that the January 2016 turnout  was the lowest voting population in memory. One can cite a number of factors including difficulties within the KMT in terms of Ma’s relationship with the legislative speaker as well as the complicated nomination process of its presidential candidate. In any case, I would not disagree with the sense that younger cohorts feel much more in tune with the DPP and their rhetoric. We will see how the DPP performs, I hope they will be successful, but as I have said at the beginning, Tsai is taking on very tough challenges ahead of her.

Michael Grouskay CMC '17Student Journalist
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