Analysis | Taiwan-China relations, sovereignty dominate presidential debate

The presidential candidates all vowed to defend the Republic of China and the status quo, but they offered little in the way of specifics on a way forward. (CNA)
The presidential candidates all vowed to defend the Republic of China and the status quo, but they offered little in the way of specifics on a way forward. (CNA)

TAIPEI (CNA) — In a presidential debate generally lacking in substance, cross-Taiwan Strait relations and national security were among the main issues discussed, with the three candidates defending their approaches to dealing with China and its military threat.

The candidates all vowed to defend the Republic of China and the status quo, but they offered little in the way of specifics on a way forward.

On how to maintain healthy ties with a China that is getting stronger, President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文), who is running for re-election, said her administration has been working to keep normal exchanges with China without making provocative or risky moves.

“The real problem is Beijing is trying to turn cross-strait relations into a political chip,” Tsai said, stressing that the most important issue was how to protect and defend the country’s sovereignty.

China is using the “1992 consensus” to hollow out Taiwan, and it would be dangerous to Taiwan to pursue short-turn economic benefits at the expense of sovereignty, Tsai warned, in a criticism of what she sees as the opposition Kuomintang’s (KMT’s) approach.

The “1992 consensus” was the formula the KMT said was reached in a 1992 meeting between officials of the KMT government and China that there is only “one China,” with each side free to interpret what that means.

It was the formula the KMT used to promote better relations with Beijing when it held power under the Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) administration from 2008 to 2016, even though China only emphasized “one-China” without acknowledging different interpretations.

Tsai’s Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) said the consensus never existed and has rejected its use since Tsai took office in May 2016, contributing to the stalemate in ties and the lack of direct contact with Beijing that exists to this day.

In the debate, however, Tsai said she believed it was possible for the parties to resolve disagreements and find solutions that could facilitate peaceful cross-strait development.

Moreover, when the Taiwanese people are united, Beijing will have to figure out a way to deal with Taiwan, she said, and she believed there will be chances for reconciliation between the two sides in the foreseeable future.

She also criticized Kaohsiung mayor and KMT presidential candidate Han Kuo-yu (韓國瑜) for not reacting quickly enough to reject Beijing’s “one country, two systems” formula, questioning why he only criticized it after yielding to public pressure.

“One country, two systems” is the system China nominally uses to govern Hong Kong and Macau, making them part of China but having the freedom to use their own economic and administrative systems.

China’s attempt to retract some of that autonomy is at the heart of the protests that have rocked the former British territory since June, and Beijing’s tough stance has created a backlash in Taiwan and helped Tsai in her re-election bid, especially among young voters.

She has made opposition to “one country, two systems” the centerpiece of her campaign since the beginning of 2019, and Han also opposed the idea in the debate.

He said Taiwan has no need to listen to Chinese President Xi Jinping’s (習近平) rhetoric, including on “one country, two systems,” and he hit back at Tsai for what he saw as her attempt to smear him on China.

“What I am seeing now is Tsai Ing-wen trying desperately to make Han Kuo-yu synonymous with ‘one country, two systems,’ like squeezing every last bit of toothpaste out of tube,” Han said.

“Who will defend Taiwan’s sovereignty if we don’t,” he said.

The solution lies in Taiwan’s constitutional system, which should be fully protected, he said, warning against being a prisoner of ideology during discussions of Taiwan-China relations.

Han did not elaborate on how to conduct relations with Beijing, but People First Party (PFP) Chairman James Soong (宋楚瑜) saw it as essential to create some form of dialogue between Taiwan and China.

Before Beijing exercises the rule of law, however, Taiwan must maintain the status quo and any change in that situation in the future has to be approved by the Taiwanese people in a democratic manner, he said.

Chao Chun-shan (趙春山), a professor of China Studies at Tamkang University, was not impressed by the discussions on relations with China, saying it was unfortunate that no progress was made toward a consensus on dealing with Beijing.

“Basically, it is impossible for Taiwan to either announce independence or unification with China at this time,” which is why the candidates should have elaborated on how they would defend the Republic of China.

Instead, they failed to do so and used the cross-strait agenda to attack one another, he said.

They did address national defense, with Tsai focusing on building up Taiwan’s indigenous weapon capabilities and Han and Soong on avoiding war.

Tsai said she was confident in Taiwan’s ability to build its own military aircraft and submarines, which will help the country gain greater autonomy and help economic development.

Han said the priority of any national defense campaign is to avoid wars, and “wars create no winners, while peace creates no losers.”

Facing a low fertility rate, Taiwan must develop smarter and more autonomous weapons that could operate as an effective deterrent, Han said.

Soong agreed with Han’s approach to avoid war, adding that Taiwan should both develop its own weapons and buy them from foreign countries.

He pointed out, though, that the real threat did not necessarily come from China, but also in any attempt to sabotage unity, and he also warned against leaning too closely toward the United States, which has been a key element of Tsai’s foreign policy.

“We should not believe in the notion that the U.S is our best friend,” he said, stressing that the real faith people should have is in democracy and freedom.