OPINION | Can Tsai Ing-wen Leverage the South China Sea to Bypass "One China Principle"?
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OPINION | Can Tsai Ing-wen Leverage the South China Sea to Bypass "One China Principle"?

By Professor Chih-yu Shih

Days before winning Saturday’s January 16, 2016election, Tsai Ing-wen, leader of Taiwan’s independence-leaning Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) pledged that her approach to managing cross-Taiwan strait ties with China would be “communication, communication, and communication.”

OPINION | Can Tsai Ing-wen Leverage the South China Sea to Bypass "One China Principle"?

Now elected, she will have four months before she is officially inaugurated as the next President of Taiwan to convince Beijing that she has no intention to legally move Taiwan towards independence from China. Thus far, she has not responded to calls that clearly state her position on the One-China Principle. While this could be part of her election campaign strategy, it may be untenable for her to remain ambiguous on where she and her party stand on this sensitive issue.

After May, Beijing’s unease may quickly escalate if Tsai and her followers start an internal unity campaign as she had promised. According to her, the goal of such a campaign will be to brush the differences between the pro-independence and the anti-independence camps in Taiwan. Tsai has promised that her pursuit of unity will focus on multi-cultural identities with due respect to all Taiwanese.

For Tsai, such a unity campaign presumably renders greater recognition of Chinese migrants who fled to Taiwan after the defeat of the Kuomintang by the Communists in the Chinese Civil War in 1949. These migrants – known as waishenren in Taiwan -  have largely lost their political clout. Tsai’s campaign could therefore, symbolize a policy of inclusion, so as to sooth those whose political stance is estranged from the Taiwan independence movement. Such estrangement reflects the wish for a better-integrated social, economic and cultural relationship with China.

Yet, the critics have already pointed out that her unity campaign may suppress the Chinese identity.  This is because, in the name of equality and multi-culturalism, seeming respect for the weak minority can justify the powerful pursuit by the much more resourceful pro-Taiwan independence activists. The latter cause will surely constitute a politically correct standard. Self-censorship among the population will follow accordingly.

The unity campaign thus, ghettoizes Chinese identities through a process of museumification. Fading Chinese migrants can only achieve representation in the history textbook or the museum. Chinese identities may completely lose their political contemporaneity.  China is reduced to an external object. This has been an alarming issue to Beijing.

Since her domestic platform alienates Beijing, Tsai will have to rely on her external stance.  Unfortunately, the signs are not promising.  She is keen to increase Taiwan’s contribution to the Washington-led security and economic order, as well as strengthen ties with Tokyo, as she told the international media after her election win. This will not be music to Beijing’s ears.

On its part, Washington has been indirectly pushing Taipei to consider renouncing its sovereignty claim on the South China Sea.  Taipei’s claim has already caused some difficulties for Washington in managing ties with other allies such as the Philippines.

The legal justification of Taipei’s sovereign claim arises originally from the Constitution of the Republic of China (ROC) before Chiang lost the Civil War. He carried the same Constitution to Taiwan nonetheless. Since the People’s Republic of China (PRC) succeeds the ROC, Beijing’s legality regarding the claim on the South China Sea shares the same source. If Taipei retreats from its own Constitution, Beijing’s claim will lose its very foundation.

Many observers believe that Tsai is ready to comply with Washington’s request to give up the South China Sea. If so, the threat to Beijing could be even more serious than Tsai’s domestic de-sinicization. Giving up territory would be tantamount to betrayal in the nationalist perspective intrinsic to the faith of the China Dream that has characterized the current Communist regime.

To be sure, Taiwan’s stance on the South China Sea alludes to Taiwan’s relationship with China more than with the US or other regional stakeholders. To give up the South China Sea would be regarded as an indirect move towards legal independence, but to stick with the sovereign claim means that Taipei’s and Beijing’s jurisdiction continues to overlap, hence, only one China.

While it could defy the US advice if Tsai reiterates the adherence to Taiwan’s claim to the South China Sea, she could at least remain silent in the public.

Compared with the One-China principle, according to which there is only one China on the two sides of the Taiwan Straits and Taipei and Beijing would have to officially deny each other’s legality, overlapped sovereignty on the South China Sea requires no such legal embarrassment.

Note that President Ma Ying-jeou and President Xi Jinping substituted Mister for their titles when they greeted each other in a Summit in November 2015, indicating the legal complexity under the One-China principle.

In contrast, there is no occasion that would require the two sides to deny each other’s sovereignty claim on the South China Sea.  They could even cooperate to face the challenge by other claiming states.

Given Tsai’s refusal to reiterate the One-China principle and her seeming determined to moving beyond the internal political divide via a unity campaign, her pro-independence identity will be more than apparent to Beijing.

Thus, the best option left for Tsai is to explain to Beijing that Taiwan’s practical adherence to the South China Sea symbolizes a kind of soft One-China principle. That is, overlapped sovereign claims on the South China Sea confirm, rather than deny, Beijing’s sovereign position over Taiwan. For Beijing, as long as Tsai is not acting as a betrayer in terms of nominally giving up the Chinese territory, the independence issue can perhaps be shelved.

About The Author:

Professor Chih-yu Shih is the National Chair Professor/University Chair Professor at the Department of Political Science, National Taiwan University.

Cite This Article:

Shih, Chih-yu. "OPINION | Can Tsai Ing-wen Leverage the South China Sea to Bypass - One China Principle" IndraStra Global 02, no. 01 (2016): 0060. http://www.indrastra.com/2016/01/OPINION-Can-Tsai-ing-wen-Leverage-SCS-to-bypass-One-China-Principle-002-01-2015-0060.html.

AIDN0020120160060 / INDRASTRA / ISSN 2381-3652