It was a weekend of eminent speechmaking, with back-to-back addresses by Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平) and President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文). While neither strayed far from their usual scripts, the juxtaposed talks offer a glimpse into cross-strait strategy in the coming months, promising subtle politicking rather than bombastic displays.
The speeches were delivered against a backdrop more fraught than usual, given China’s deployment of more than 150 aircraft into Taiwan’s air defense identification zone (ADIZ) this month, a record number that includes a single maneuver involving 52 aircraft.
Although much has been made in international media of Xi’s emphasis on “peaceful reunification” in his speech on Saturday, he still managed to wedge in a threat that Taiwanese independence advocates would “come to no good end,” even if he stopped short of vowing to “smash” them as he did in July. Still, Tsai’s speech the day after was met with three more Chinese planes entering Taiwan’s ADIZ. Alarmist coverage aside, another way to read Xi’s address is as an overture to the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) as it welcomes new leadership and gears up for a comeback in local elections next year.
There is good historical reason for the timing of the speeches around Double Ten, celebrated by the Republic of China (ROC) as its national day and by the People’s Republic of China (PRC) as the anniversary of the Xinhai Revolution that overthrew the Qing Dynasty, with both sharing a reverence for Sun Yat-sen (孫逸仙). It is exactly this kind of historical connection that the KMT clings to as an extension of cross-strait goodwill, and the party did not fail to remind the public of this rare point of consensus.
In his Double Ten National Day remarks, new KMT Chairman Eric Chu (朱立倫) reiterated that “both sides of the Strait should uphold this spirit” represented by Sun, and that “seeking common ground while retaining differences of opinion” is the basis of cross-strait relations. This sentiment reflected Xi’s speech, which emphasized Sun’s vision of “national rejuvenation” and framed Taiwanese independence as its greatest obstacle. Xi’s added mention of the so-called “1992 consensus” also brought to mind Chu’s response to Xi’s letter of congratulations last month, which cited the “1992 consensus” and opposition to independence as the basis of cross-strait relations, adding to the din in their echo chamber.
For a floundering party whose only appeal to voters is better Chinese relations, this is a lifeline it will be happy to accept. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) knows this and will continue tweaking its dialogue to make it appear as though the two are on the same page, even while it tries to turn to the next chapter.
On the other hand, Tsai in her speech spent a significant amount of time appealing for political cooperation, even calling out the opposition by name. She is acutely aware that lacking a unified voice is dangerous, especially for a nation that must constantly justify its existence, and letting Beijing define the narrative is a death sentence.
To counter the CCP-KMT echo chamber, Tsai alternatively proposed four commitments on which to base a national consensus: a free and democratic constitutional system; that the ROC and the PRC should not be subordinate to each other; resisting annexation or encroachment upon Taiwan’s sovereignty; and that the future of Taiwan must be decided in accordance with the will of Taiwanese.
Still, her overtures are sure to fall on deaf ears. Hours after her speech, the KMT and the Taiwan People’s Party were quick to pounce on the Democratic Progressive Party for supposedly locking them out of the room, crying that “the crisis of governance begins when there is no voice of opposition.”
Political infighting only creates fissures that Beijing can and will exploit. While disagreements are a necessary part of democracy, they must grow from a solid foundation. Taiwan’s political parties would do well to agree on one before the ground shifts beneath their feet.
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