Cross Strait

Plane speech in US

Taiwan opposition leader sparks controversy

Plane speech in US

Washington: avoiding a dogfight

It was an unusual statement for a leader of Taiwan’s Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) to make.

But Tsai Ing-wen struck an unexpected tone in Washington last week, on a visit to drum up support for her presidential campaign.

Asked about relations with the mainland, the head of Taiwan’s opposition party was quoted as saying that she did not “exclude any possibility” on ‘reunification’ with China.

“As long as there is public support, Taiwan and China’s future relations can remain open,” Tsai suggested.

It all sounded like something of a diplomatic quantum leap. Unlike the ruling Kuomintang Party (KMT) of President Ma Ying-jeou, the DPP has long riled Beijing with its attempts to declare the island’s independence. (Beijing, on the other hand, regards Taiwan as a breakaway province.)

But just as quickly, Tsai’s party was backpedalling, saying that the media had misunderstood her remarks.

“What Tsai means is that, as Taiwan people are still divided over national identification, all people with different opinions should be respected. To the DPP, democracy has to be given top priority. But that by no means that unification is the party’s option or thinking,” DPP spokesman Liang Wen-chieh clarified.

Still, Tsai’s softer tone seems to suggest that she is a more moderate voice than many of her party members. A former law professor, she took the DPP chair nearly three years ago at the lowest point in the party’s history, with corruption charges swirling around the last DPP president Chen Shui-bian, who managed to antagonise both Beijing and Washington with his push for formal independence during the eight years of his presidency.

The DPP then worked to distance itself from Chen, and even reinvented itself as a party of reasoned thinking towards the mainland, says the Economist.

In previous interviews, Tsai has asserted that her party adheres to a “balanced, stable and moderate” China policy, before adding that she will continue to negotiate with China on an equal footing, putting Taiwan’s interests first.

Tsai’s middle-of-the-road approach appears to have resonated with the voters. In key municipal elections last November, the DPP ended up winning more individual votes than Ma’s KMT. The opposition party also had landslide wins in a few parliamentary by-elections.

But Tsai may have a much harder time winning over Beijing. She has publicly rejected the “1992 consensus” in which both China and Taiwan agreed that there is only “one China” (while also agreeing to keeping silent about what that definitions means). Instead, Tsai is proposing that Taiwan come up with other “consensuses” as a substitute, a move that’s angered Beijing.

China has made no secret about its preference for Ma. Since he took office in 2008, Beijing and Taipei have signed a historic trade deal, opened the island to growing numbers of Chinese tourists, and held frequent bilateral talks. Pro-Beijing analysts say China is worried that if Tsai now wins the presidential race, she might undo much of the goodwill both sides have worked hard to develop.

In another Taiwan issue making headlines, the US has decided not to sell Taipei the 66 new C/D jetfighter models it has been seeking since 2006. Instead it will help upgrade the 146 existing Lockheed Martin F-16 A/B jets, the Associated Press quoted congressional aides as saying.

Although Beijing furiously opposes all arms sales to Taipei as meddling in its home affairs – remember the last package of US arms for Taiwan, worth $6.4 billion and announced in January 2010, prompted a suspension of military exchanges with Washington for 12 months – it should be pleased to hear about the deal on new F-16s.

Military experts say the upgrades will be an insufficient defence against China’s more advanced jet capability. For Tsai and her party it is a disconcerting decision.

“All sides are calculating that the island is increasingly indefensible to an attack by China, and are banking on closer economic ties as a path to resolving historic tensions,” says the Wall Street Journal.

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