Stepping into 2016, the international spotlight for the year will not only be on terrorism, but also on several elections that hang in the balance, elections that could easily be described as the changing of dynasties. Those that will draw the most attention within their respective regions are the Taiwanese presidential election two weeks hence and the U.S. presidential race that is soon to enter its primary stage before reaching its final conclusion in November. Because Tsai Ing-wen is currently favored in Taiwanese polls, the ruling Kuomintang that has held the seat of power for eight years will find it difficult to make any headway in the 10 remaining days. If things play out as expected, there will be yet another changing of the guard in the Taiwanese political landscape. As for the U.S. electoral scene, far-right Republican candidate Donald Trump holds the lead within his party, while Democratic President Barack Obama has served his maximum term in office and must pass the torch, with the strongly favored former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton looking likely to step up to the plate in his place. However, regardless of whether it is Clinton, Trump, or any other candidate that emerges victorious, the White House will be welcoming a new master come next year.
Tsai Ing-wen is the head of Taiwan's Pan-Green Coalition and has extremely close ties to former Taiwanese President Lee Teng-hui, and whether or not cross-strait relations will continue to be conducted entirely in the manner of the current era under President Ma Ying-jeou is a looming question mark. Any setback in relations with China will depend on Tsai's future policy direction toward the mainland. Following in the footsteps of Ma will keep the waters of the Taiwan Strait tranquil and calm; diverging from that path, however, will spell out a far different future. General Secretary of the Communist Party of China Xi Jinping stated at the beginning of 2015 that if the collective political foundation between both sides of the strait breaks down and mutual trust is lost, cross-strait relations will return to a path of turmoil, or in his words, "if the foundation is not firm, the earth will shake and the mountains tremble." And as many are aware, the key factor that will weigh most heavily in the balance between those mountains standing tall or tumbling down will be Tsai's attitude toward the 1992 Consensus.
The 1992 Consensus, the Crux of Cross-strait Relations
In mainland China's understanding, the 1992 Consensus is that "both sides of the strait will maintain the One-China Policy." Taiwan, meanwhile, has a separate interpretation, and Tsai Ing-wen has long been opposed to the accord. If Tsai resolves to deviate from the current path after taking office by rejecting the consensus or inventing her own interpretation of it, it is difficult to say what Beijing's response will be. It is still too early to portend a repeat of the 1996 missile tests, but it seems a safe assumption that some "earth-shaking events" are bound to occur, lest China's ability to govern be called into question.
In the event of Tsai Ing-wen's election to office, one pillar determining the direction of cross-strait relations will be whether the 1992 Consensus is acknowledged, while the other will be the posture of the United States. Most will remember that the United States had already begun working on its "pivot to Asia" strategic adjustment while Hillary Clinton was still secretary of state under the Obama administration, shifting the U.S. strategic center of gravity away from the Middle East and Europe and toward the West Pacific to engage in a tug-of-war with China. In recent years, this competition has led to steadily increasing friction within the East and South China Seas and more frequent movements of fighter and naval vessels throughout those regions. And as the contest has gone on, several other nations in the South China Sea such as the Philippines and Vietnam have entered as contenders, ensuring that the situation will only grow more complex.
Dynastic Shifts in the United States and Taiwan: Focus on the East and South China Seas
By November of this year, the world will know who the next president of the United States will be, but regardless of whether it is Clinton or a Republican that emerges victorious, tensions in the West Pacific are only likely to increase. As a consequence of competition over the West Pacific with China becoming ingrained within U.S. policy, there will be few differences between the strategies of Democrats and Republicans, or Clinton and Trump, in that regard; the only slight distinction will likely be between a "hard line" and "harder line." And as the United States continues to push its hard line stance in the pivot to Asia strategy, Taiwan's enormous strategic value will make it an important piece on the board in U.S. efforts to check the mainland. In fact, currently, hints of the U.S. West Pacific strategic structure in the post-Obama era are already beginning to coalesce, with the recent sale of U.S. arms to Taiwan being clearly designed to steer Taiwanese policy toward the mainland.
Therefore, one can predict that with the change of dynasties in Taiwan and a new president taking up residence in the White House, friction in the East and South China Seas will grow more acute. Since Xi Jinping's rise to power, China's stance has exhibited marked differences from those of the previous two leaders, and the government has already officially announced that the People's Liberation Army is producing its second aircraft carrier. While it is only a medium carrier with a displacement of 50,000 metric tons, one more carrier is after all one more carrier, and with plans for ship construction already in hand, building another should not prove to be any great difficulty. The reasons for China's carrier construction are quite obviously a response to large-scale U.S. and Japanese maneuvers in the East and South China Seas.
And in the middle of all this, Taiwan will play an extremely important role. As to whether it once more becomes the "unsinkable aircraft carrier” of the U.S. or chooses to continue interacting with mainland China via the 1992 Consensus and remain impartial in disputes in the East and South China Seas, thereby serving as a third party with a considerable voice, we must look to how the new master of the Presidential Palace in Taipei takes hold of affairs in this complex political space. If adroitly handled, wealth and prosperity will come to both sides of the Taiwan Strait — if off the mark, it is likely that waves will rise throughout the West Pacific.