Will China’s Leadership Transition Lead to a New Cross-Strait Policy?

Cristina Garafola and Bao-chiun “Jingbo” Jing assess the potential for improved cross-Strait relations under China's new leader Xi Jinping and Taiwan's incumbent president Ma Ying-jeou.

With the presidential elections in Taiwan last January and the leadership transition on the mainland, 2013 could bring important changes to cross-Strait relations. http://i.images.cdn.fotopedia.com/flickr-4359537757-hd/February_Festivities/Chinese_New_Year/Welcome_the_Dragon.jpg Based in part on the Taiwanese people’s general support for the Ma administration’s peaceful cross-Strait policy, voters reelected President Ma Ying-jeou for a second term and the Kuomintang (KMT) retained control of the Legislative Yuan (LY).[1]  On the mainland, newly announced leader Xi Jinping has many years of experience working on cross-Strait issues and may bring new insights to the Communist Party’s stance on Taiwan.  Despite the potential for Ma and Xi to support improved cross-Strait ties during their leadership, however, political calculations on both sides of the Taiwan Strait will prevent major progress in the relationship for the next few years.

Ma Ying-jeou’s Re-Election and Beijing: Four More Years

The results of the Taiwanese elections generally reaffirmed voter satisfaction with Ma’s cooperative approach with China under the “1992 Consensus,” which states that there is only one China but that both sides interpret “one China” differently. In addition, Ma Ying-jeou also proclaims a “Three Noes” policy – no independence, no reunification, and no use of force – as the basis for cross-Strait negotiations. Based on this foundation, Ma’s first term saw significant cross-Strait economic cooperation, with 18 agreements signed that include the Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement (ECFA) and the “three links” agreements on postal services and air and sea transport.[2] In his inauguration speech in May 2012, Ma vowed to expedite further ECFA negotiations. Both sides also signed agreements on investment protection and customs cooperation in August, aiming to create a better environment for businesses on either side of the Strait.

However, voters have also raised concerns about increasing social inequality and possible over-dependence on economic ties with China under the Ma administration, leading more Taiwanese to vote for the opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) in 2012 as compared to 2008. The DPP increased its Legislative Yuan (LY) seats from 27 to 40, while the KMT’s share of seats dropped from 81 to 64. Overall, broad economic engagement with China does remain popular, and Ma will continue to develop economic ties through the end of his term in 2016.

Closer political engagement is another issue. During the campaign, Ma proposed a cross-Strait peace accord but quickly backed away from promoting the plan as polls showed widespread disapproval; Ma has not returned to the idea since his re-election. Given the increasing voter support of the DPP, other smaller parties’ involvement in the legislative process this session, and the administration’s currently dismal approval ratings (hovering at 17.7%, mostly due to slowing economic growth), the Ma administration is unlikely to revisit close political cooperation. For example, Ma has stated that Taiwan will not officially cooperate with China over territorial disputes in the South China Sea and the Diaoyu (Senkaku) Islands.  Also, after Hu Jintao voiced Beijing’s hope for signing a peace accord with Taiwan in a speech during the 18th Party Congress, Taiwan’s Mainland Affairs Minister Wang Yu-chi responded that a peace accord is not a priority in Ma’s second term as conditions are not right. With the nature of Taiwan’s domestic politics and citizens’ strengthening Taiwanese identity, any movement that erodes Taiwan’s sovereignty and moves toward political integration with Beijing could backfire for the Ma administration.

To counter the criticism of economic over-dependence on China, Ma will have to ensure that Taiwan will not be marginalized in the Asia-Pacific region during his second administration. He has argued that ECFA will not only create conditions conducive for Taiwan to negotiate free-trade agreements (FTAs) with a range of countries, but also expand Taiwan’s opportunities to participate in Asia-Pacific economic integration, especially with the ASEAN countries. So far, only Singapore and New Zealand have participated in talks on FTAs with Taiwan. To realize the economic progress voters seek, the Ma administration will have to redouble its efforts to materialize the goals of joining regional economic integration, including the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP)–despite opposition from the mainland.

PRC: New Leadership Takes the Stage

On the other side of the Taiwan Strait, the Chinese leadership transition process is in full swing with the ongoing 18th Party Congress. Taipei’s chief intelligence official believes that among top Chinese Communist Party (CCP) leadership, Xi Jinping has the deepest understanding of cross-Strait issues; he spent 17 years in a combination of party, state, and military positions in nearby Fujian Province, including two years as provincial governor. In Fujian, Xi worked to boost cross-Strait trade and investment with a slogan of “do it now” (mashang jiu ban). Given his regional experience, Xi’s presumed succession has raised hopes in Taipei that he would take a more flexible and open-minded approach to relations, particularly vis-a-vis hawkish PLA generals. For example, Xi could potentially remove some of the approximately 1,600 missiles aimed at Taiwan as a symbolic gesture of goodwill.

However, the status quo in relations is likely to override a new approach for two reasons.  For one, Ma Ying-jeou’s reelection in 2012 validated both the mainland’s tacit acceptance of the 1992 Consensus and Hu Jintao’s “peaceful development” (heping fazhan) strategy of strengthening relations while maintaining the eventual goal of unification.  The CCP would like to avoid another pro-independence presidency like Chen Shui-bian’s from 2000 to 2008, so top leaders may view the success of “peaceful development” as a reason to continue a strategy that has brought victories for the KMT.

Another factor is the timeline of Xi’s own succession.  During the last round of transitions from Jiang Zemin to Hu Jintao, Hu gradually assumed three positions–the roles of the party secretary, the president of the PRC, and finally the head of the party and state Central Military Commissions (CMCs)–taking 2.5 years to gain all three.  This time around, Xi Jinping has already assumed both the party secretary and party CMC roles, which means that compared to Hu Jintao, he will more quickly assume control over the PLA.  However, consolidating his authority over the military will still take many months. Without firm control of the military, Xi will not be able to make any major changes to Taiwan policy.

Finally, even if Xi wanted to push for changes and was able to quickly consolidate control over the military, other high-ranking CPP members, including the other members of the new Politburo Standing Committee, will influence the mainland’s cross-Strait policy, and building consensus on a potential shift in cross-Strait relations will take time.  Given the host of domestic issues these new leaders face, such as slowing growth and worsening inequality, they will likely focus on more urgent domestic challenges rather than improving cross-Strait ties.

Though the next few years may not see a major shift in cross-Strait relations, by 2015, conditions may be ripe on both sides for change. By 2015, Xi Jinping and other fifth generation leaders will have consolidated their power. In Taiwan, the KMT and DPP candidates vying for their party’s presidential nomination for the 2016 election will have announced their visions for cross-Strait policy. A DPP presidency would likely lead to strains in the cross-Strait relationship, but a victory for the KMT may provide the best window of opportunity for further cooperation in the coming years.

Written by Cristina Garafola & Bao-chiun “Jingbo” Jing

Cristina Garafola is an M.A. candidate at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies and holds a certificate from the Hopkins-Nanjing Center for Chinese and American Studies. Cristina has previously interned at the Department of State and most recently with the Freeman Chair in China Studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. She speaks Chinese, German, and is currently learning Burmese.

Bao-chiun “Jingbo” Jing is a 2012 M.A. graduate at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. Bao-chiun has previously interned with the Chair for Southeast Asia Studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. He currently is a consultant with the International Institute at Graduate School USA.

[1] President Ma Ying-Jeou of the Kuomintang (KMT) won re-election by garnering 51.6 percent of the votes against 45.6 percent won by Tsai Ing-wen of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP). The KMT also retained the majority of Legislative Yuan (LY) by winning 64 out of 113 seats, while the DPP secured 40 seats; three other parties plus one independent won the remaining seats. Election results from Taiwan’s Central Election Commission, http://vote2012.cec.gov.tw/en/index.html

[2] In 2011, the amount of Taiwan’s exports to China reached $83.9 billion, an increase of 25 percent compared to 2008. See http://www.mac.gov.tw/public/Attachment/28319282433.pdf

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