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What Does “The Status Quo” Mean in Tsai Ing-wen’s Double Tenth Day Speech?

29 Oct 2021
By Dr Ye Xue
President Tsai Ing-wen delivers a speech on Double Tenth Day 2021. Source: Official Photo by Makoto Lin / Office of the President

Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen vowed to maintain the status quo in cross-strait relations. But can Taiwan really achieve its strategic goal?

“Our position on cross-strait relations remains the same: neither our goodwill nor our commitments will change… We call for maintaining the status quo, and we will do our utmost to prevent the status quo from being unilaterally altered,” said Tsai Ing-wen, the current leader of Taiwan, in her 10 October speech commemorating the national day of the Republic of China (ROC). The island’s government calls it Double Tenth Day.

Regarding the status quo as the strategic goal in cross-strait affairs is hardly new for the high-level politicians of Taiwan. In 2007, the former leader of Taiwan, Ma Ying-jeou, proposed maintaining the status quo as his policy towards cross-strait relations during his presidential campaign. His policy was founded on the 1992 Consensus and “One China, Two Interpretations,” which claimed the importance of the “Three No” formula: “no unification, no independence, and no use of force.”

Tsai also frequently stresses the importance of maintaining the status quo. The idea of the status quo in her policy agenda maintains the “Three No” characteristics because it is a reassurance for both domestic and international audiences. Domestically, in a 2019 survey, 90 percent of respondents said that the status quo across the Taiwan Strait should be maintained. Internationally, the declaration of Taiwan’s independence would cross the red line for Beijing, heighten tensions in the region, and damage the regional security interests of the US. It would also place Taiwan’s democratic friends who have formal diplomatic ties with mainland China in a difficult position.

The Dynamic Status Quo

The landscape of cross-strait relations has undergone a profound transformation over the past few years, and arguably, the power is shifting towards Taiwan. The idea of the status quo in Tsai’s speech goes beyond the “Three No” formula with two prominent new features.

Taipei aims to maintain the basic security landscape of the Taiwan Strait, which is characterised by the policy of no use of force. This was formed by the interpolation of the US as a balancer in the wake of the Taiwan Strait Crisis of 1995-1996. At the same time, Tsai’s administration wants to maintain political ambiguity towards the 1992 Consensus and “One China, Two Interpretations.” This ambiguity has been consistent in the DPP’s political creed and has been reflected in her 2016 and 2020 presidential campaigns.

The status quo implies that Taipei is devoted to maintaining momentum in gaining the sympathy of the international community. This support could boost Taiwan’s global image, as well as offset pressure from Beijing, or increase the cost of Beijing’s policy of coercion. While the number countries that recognise ROC’s sovereignty has dropped to 15 since Tsai took office in 2016, there have been increasingly loud voices from the West in support of Taiwan’s international status. In other words, Taipei wants to keep shaping the status quo around the Taiwan Strait issue as a multilateral issue, rather than a bilateral or internal issue.

In this sense, the status quo is not static but dynamic, and it is moving in a direction that is in favour of Tsai and her Democratic Progressive Party’s pro-independent political agenda.

Conditions for Maintaining the Status Quo

The trouble is that as a regional small power, Taiwan’s ability to maintain the status quo is largely dependent upon the external environment. There are three pertinent conditions that determine the current status quo.

First, the status quo relies on the US as an “outside arbiter.” This requires that the US continues its policing role in this region, exploiting its military preponderance to shape the course of regional affairs. In particular, the US presence can deter the perceived capability and willingness of the ambitious Beijing to begin using military power in the Taiwan Strait. US President Joe Biden’s full-throated support for Taiwan would send a powerful signal to its regional allies that Washington intends to recenter democracy in its regional leadership.

The second condition is the confrontational relationship between China and the US. The tone of the current dynamic status quo is heavily informed by intensified China-US competition. Despite then-President Donald Trump’s mercurial leadership style, there were many substantive advances in US-Taiwan relations under his administration. These developments reflect the fundamental bipartisan shift in Washington’s approach to competition with Beijing, as well as the recognition of Taiwan’s strategic importance in the Indo-Pacific region. The Biden administration is now in the process of stimulating the emergence of a more formal alignment of regional democracies, under the aegis of the Quad and AUKUS, thereby strengthening their collective ability to stand against Beijing.

Beijing’s economic sanction on Taiwanese pineapples and sugar apples and increased military pressure in recent years comprise the third force that has shaped the status quo. There is little doubt that Beijing’s assertive policy serves its domestic political agenda. Beijing’s own actions are, in fact, a major contributor to the rise in international sympathy towards Taiwan. Beijing’s policies have stimulated fear and wariness in nearby countries, like Australia, and in other like-minded countries of Taiwan, like Lithuania, resulting in pushback against Chinese economic and diplomatic assertiveness.

The Prospect of the Status Quo

 How likely is it that the status quo of cross-strait relations, which favours Taiwan, can be maintained in the next couple of years? There is continuity between the foreign policy of the current US president and that of the former president, and the most prominent element of the continuity is the centrality of the great power rivalry—above all, with China. In this sense, the strategic importance of Taiwan in Washington’s Indo-Pacific plan is guaranteed, and the status quo can be maintained.

Taiwan will keep playing the “democracy card” in its diplomacy. Although domestic society may think economic development and the reduction of economic inequality are more important than political freedom and democracy, “fight for democracy” is still a useful slogan to seek solidarity with like-minded countries.

Tsai’s government will continue to provoke Beijing to ensure that Beijing continues to adopt a relatively tough policy towards Taiwan because a certain degree of military pressure from Beijing is not detrimental for Tsai’s government. Like Wen-Ti Sung argued recently, many Taiwanese see Beijing’s military pressure as more of a show than a preparation for an all-out invasion, “it is general alarm fatigue from decades of exposure.”

Also, Taiwan’s efforts to develop a global identity as an unyielding victim could enhance Beijing’s image as a bully in the eyes of international audiences. At the same time, it helps Taiwan to attract more support from the international community. In particular, other countries face a similar situation where they have to deal with China’s possible coercive policies.

In a nutshell, the dynamic status quo is very likely to be maintained. This implies that neither unification nor independence would be feasible in the short term, but Taiwan’s prominence in the international space will keep growing, which allows Taiwan to have more options and choices.

Dr Ye Xue is a research associate at Australia National University. He specialises in non-Western international relations theory, Chinese foreign policy, Australia-China relations, and sports politics. His research has been published in leading scholarly journals including The Pacific Review, Pacific Focus and Journal of Contemporary China. Dr Xue also provides regular comments on contemporary developments China-Australia Relations and Chinese society. His opinion pieces have appeared in The Conversation, The Interpreter and Honi Soit.

This article is published under a Creative Commons License and may be republished with attribution.