Taiwanese Presidents Will Not and Can Not Unilaterally Change Taiwan’s Status

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A single leader cannot make Taiwan independent or unify it with the People Republic of China. Even trying either course would be political suicide.


During an interview following her 2020 presidential win, Tsai Ing-wen was asked a question, one that analysts around the world frequently ponder: What would happen if she were to formally declare Taiwanese independence? Tsai responded in her typical, pragmatic fashion: “We don’t have a need to declare ourselves an independent state. We are an independent country already.” But the logic of this theoretical question – that the president of Taiwan can unilaterally change Taiwan’s status – is misleading.

Contrary to the attention paid to which party Taiwan’s president is from, the actual power to change Taiwan’s status does not lie with the president, but rather with the Taiwanese people.

So long as Taiwan remains a democratic country, a unilateral declaration of independence from a Taiwanese president is not going to happen. Here is why.

First, and most importantly, Taiwan has strong institutions with rules and regulations for constitutional change. The president does not have the power personally to change the constitution. Constitutional change is an established process that goes through multiple levels of governmental review before being voted on by elected officials.

For a president to unilaterally change the fate of Taiwan would be akin to an authoritarian power grab that would forgo all of Taiwan’s established democratic institutions, which neither the Kuomintang (KMT) nor the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) is able to do.

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The DPP: Tethered to Public Opinion

Tsai Ing-wen herself is neither radical nor irrational enough to attempt a unilateral change of Taiwan’s status. She has expressly said that “only the majority public opinion can decide Taiwan’s future and cross-strait relations.” In her six years in office, Tsai has neither backed nor proposed any policy or plan that would formally change Taiwan’s constitution or national status. Fears of her doing so are unfounded and play into Beijing’s propaganda.

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As for the DPP itself, the party has pledged in its charter not to declare independence, and that any change to Taiwan’s status must be decided by Taiwanese citizens, not the party. Specifically, the DPP’s official stance on Taiwan’s future comes from the 1999 “Resolution on Taiwan’s Future”:


Taiwan is a sovereign and independent state, any changes made to its current independent status must be done through public vote in which all Taiwanese citizens have a say.

What do most Taiwanese want? Polling shows overwhelmingly that they do not want immediate independence. Independence versus unification issues are the key decider of elections, with people voting for the party that they think would be able to avoid an immediate threat to Taiwan’s de facto sovereignty.

This cuts both ways. The DPP stands to lose – as it did in 2008 – if its advocacy for independence is viewed as too provocative toward China. The same goes for the KMT if it is viewed as endangering Taiwan’s sovereignty by facilitating closer political ties with China.

What About Tsai’s Successor?

Neither extreme independence nor extreme unification is a viable path to victory in Taiwanese politics. This is something that the DPP would be wise to remember when it considers who will run for president in 2024, when Tsai’s second term ends.

William Lai, Tsai’s former premier and current vice president, is the current frontrunner. Lai’s presidential ambitions are well known. He challenged Tsai during the 2019 DPP primary, almost leading to a party split. But Tsai successfully unified the party and, given its strong position today, is likely to lead the DPP into a strong 2024 election.

What remains unclear about Lai is his inconsistent stance on independence. When he served as Tainan mayor, he was openly pro-independence; when he became Tsai’s premier in 2016, he changed to declaring Taiwan to already be independent, asserting that no further action was needed – a more pro-status quo stance. Lai then created further ambiguity by declaring himself to be in support of a position that is “close to China, but loves Taiwan” (親中愛台) , upsetting some pro-independence supporters, although he continues to enjoy their support broadly.

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The question thus remains whether Lai will remain pro-status quo in some form or return to his pro-independence roots.

Nevertheless, it is important to keep in mind that Lai, if elected, is still just as unlikely to unilaterally declare independence as Tsai is today. Unless opinion polls radically change in the next three years, Taiwanese public opinion will remain firmly in favor of the status quo, which aims to avoid conflict across the Taiwan Strait.

What About the KMT?


If the KMT manages to regain power again, as in 2008, it would be just as unable to unilaterally declare unification without a blatant and illegal return to its authoritarian roots – something that would trigger public resistance, as observed in the flare-up of the 2014 Sunflower Movement over a trade deal with China that that the party intended to pass.

Even when the KMT’s power peaked with control over both the presidency and the legislature, there was not enough political will or public support to even hint at a push toward unification. The closest the KMT came to a new cross-strait understanding was the 2015 Ma-Xi meeting, which resulted in no policy changes and only fueled anti-KMT sentiment in Taiwan.

The KMT has faced an internal crisis since 2016. The party is cognizant of how it has lost the support of young Taiwanese and various other sectors of the public. Although some have called for the party to reform and change its pro-China image to win back support, others in the party have called for a return to party fundamentals and doubling down on calls for unification and an emphasis on Chinese identity.

The party is so entangled in debates over the 1992 Consensus that much of the KMT’s internal debates do not even discuss unification. Instead, it is devoted to re-framing the party in a more Taiwan-centric way that still appeals enough to Beijing to normalize relations.

There is a reason why the KMT has been unable to advance beyond the 1992 Consensus: It was the last formula for managing cross-strait relations that allowed the KMT to attract the support of the public and successfully win democratic elections. With no alternatives, the party continues to cling desperately to the 1992 Consensus because it cannot shrug off the will of the public in order to maintain viability in future elections.

Even though the KMT does not seem to be in an electorally strong position, it is worth remembering that it tied the DPP in the party vote – the proportional representation mechanism by which citizens cast votes for a party of their choice to decide legislative seats – in 2020. Its hardline 2020 presidential candidate, Han Kuo-yu, while unsuccessful, still far outperformed Eric Chu’s run in 2016.

A single leader cannot make Taiwan independent or unify it with the People Republic of China. Despite Taiwan’s recent rise in international prominence and growing concerns over whether the DPP will make a unilateral move, we should not forget that Taiwan is a democracy with rules, institutions, and formalities. We should also remember that Taiwanese do not want immediate independence and value an uncomfortable peace over war.

Worries about changes to the geopolitical realities of the Taiwan Strait should instead focus on those actively militarizing cross-strait relations and not those who are bound by democratic rules and laws.

LDP leadership contender Sanae Takaichi holds rare talks with Taiwan president

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Liberal Democratic Party lawmaker Sanae Takaichi, a contender in the LDP presidential race, held rare talks with Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen on Monday, with discussions focusing on ways to deepen security and economic cooperation — including the possibility of Tokyo’s support for Taipei joining a key regional trade pact.

Tsai joined the online meeting with Takaichi, a conservative politician known for her hawkish views on China, in her capacity as the the head of Taiwan’s ruling Democratic Progressive Party.

The former internal affairs minister initially announced the meeting Monday on Twitter, saying that the pair “were able to hold positive discussions aimed at expanding and deepening security and practical exchanges.”

She said the meeting, which lasted about 30 minutes, had been in the works for more than a month.

Tsai also took to Twitter to praise the meeting with Takaichi, calling it “a very meaningful exchange of opinions.”

In a short clip of the videoconference posted to YouTube on Tuesday, Takaichi praised Japan’s increasingly close ties with Taiwan, as well as the two neighbors’ growing focus on security relations and ensuring the stability of the regional rules-based order — an implicit criticism of China’s growing assertiveness near the self-ruled island.

It is extremely rare for a Japanese politician, especially a contender for the LDP presidency and in this case a possible prime minister, to hold a meeting with senior Taiwanese officials, let alone the island’s leader.

Although Taiwan and Japan do not have formal diplomatic ties, the two sides have long maintained a robust relationship that includes economic and cultural exchanges.

In recent months their ties have grown closer than ever, with Tokyo having become far more vocal in the public sphere about its concerns over China’s assertiveness, especially its actions near the self-ruled island and in the East China Sea.

China claims Taiwan as a renegade province that must be brought back into the fold — by force, if necessary — and regards it as a core issue.

Senior Japanese officials have in recent months noted with trepidation the possibility of conflict erupting in the Taiwan Strait, with Deputy Prime Minister Taro Aso and others even referring to a Chinese invasion of the self-ruled island as an existential threat to Japan’s own security.

But in the talks with Tsai, Takaichi also noted that her concerns went beyond national defense.

“I think we need to focus not only on national defense, but also on economic security,” Takaichi said, Japanese and Taiwanese flags hanging from a wall behind her.

Takaichi pointed to the need for the two sides to work together to ensure stable global supply chains, highlighting the chaos that microchip shortages have wrought.

The LDP contender also offered an endorsement of Taiwan’s participation in the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP), which is currently chaired by Japan.

“Japan supports (Taiwan’s) participation and wants to provide as much support as possible, including helping solve various problems and meeting prerequisites for joining the CPTPP,” she said, adding that Tokyo will continue to promote Taiwan’s involvement in other international bodies.

Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen attends a commissioning ceremony for a new Ta Chiang guided-missile corvette in Suao, Taiwan, on Thursday. | BLOOMBERG

China submitted a formal application to join the deal on Thursday. The original 12-member agreement, known then as the Trans-Pacific Partnership, was seen as an important economic counterweight to China’s growing influence.

But the massive trade agreement was thrown into limbo in early 2017 when then-U.S. President Donald Trump withdrew. The administration of Trump’s successor, Joe Biden, has effectively put rejoining the pact on the backburner as it prioritizes its COVID-19 response.

Tsai, for her part, said mutual assistance between Taiwan and Japan is critical to regional stability, adding that she hopes for closer bilateral cooperation in several areas, including regional security, economic development and the global supply chain.

Still, security issues appeared to be at the top of her agenda.

“Taiwan and Japan share a very important bond, and it is very important that we help each other,” Tsai said. “However, we are living in an era of a rapidly changing strategic order. This is a very tough challenge for all countries and their leaders. I expect Japan and Taiwan to work with all countries in the region to pursue peace and stability.”

Among the candidates in the Sept. 29 LDP leadership election, Takaichi is widely seen as taking the strongest stance against Beijing.

The former internal affairs minister has called the odds of a conflict erupting over Taiwan “high,” pledging that her government would be prepared to respond to any emergency situation. On Sunday, she raised eyebrows as the sole candidate to say that she would accept a U.S. deployment of ground-based intermediate-range missiles in Japan amid the growing security threat from China.

“Deploying intermediate-range missiles is absolutely necessary to protect the lives and territory of the Japanese people,” she said.

Although she placed third in a weekend Kyodo News poll of LDP members on the most suitable candidate to be party leader and effectively Japan’s next prime minister, Takaichi has seen a groundswell of support in recent days.

According to the Kyodo poll, Takaichi had the support of 15.7% of respondents, trailing former Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida at 18.5% and far behind vaccination czar Taro Kono at 48.6%.

The conservative lawmaker has also garnered endorsements from some of the party’s most outspoken China hawks, including former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe; Abe’s brother and current defense chief, Nobuo Kishi; his deputy, State Minister of Defense Yasuhide Nakayama; and former defense chief Tomomi Inada, among others.

Stephen M. Young On Taiwan: The making of a leader: Tsai Ing-wen’s path to the presidency

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Stephen M. Young On Taiwan: The making of a leader: Tsai Ing-wen’s path to the presidency

I first met Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) in 1999, when I was Acting Director of AIT, as Darryl Johnson had just left and Ray Burghardt had not yet arrived. She was a young aide for then-President Lee Teng-hui (李登輝). President Lee just had enunciated a new theory, which came to be known as the “state-to-state” principle, in an interview with a German newspaper. Beijing had predictably gone berserk and was trying to get Washington to come down heavily on President Lee. In the midst of all this, Tsai and I met to discuss the situation. I took a liking to this studious and quiet woman, who had an impressive educational background, including study in London and at Cornell. I later invited her to my home on Song Jiang Road.

Not long after our first one-on-one session, Tsai told me she was taking a break and flying to London for a visit. I asked her what she planned to do in that fantastic world city; take in the sights, perhaps visit some museums. To my surprise, Madame Tsai told me she was most looking forward to crawling through the city’s bookstores! That image of the hardcore scholar has stuck with me all these years.

When Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁) unexpectedly gained the Presidency in 2000 after a tightly contested three-way race, Ms. Tsai became his Director of Mainland Affairs. It was only after this that she formally joined the DPP. I returned to Taipei as AIT Director in 2007, at which point she had become Vice Premier under Premier Su Tseng-chang (蘇貞昌), toward the latter stages of Chen’s second term. With the return to power of the KMT under Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) in early 2008, Ms. Tsai became DPP Chairwoman, later losing the 2012 presidential race to incumbent Ma in a fairly close contest. Then in 2016, Tsai was elected President in a landslide victory, accompanied for the first time by a DPP majority in the legislature. I was honored to be part of the US delegation to her inauguration. Madame Tsai was resoundingly reelected in 2020, and her party currently enjoys a legislative majority in the Legislative Yuan.

Tsai has made history in many respects, notably becoming the first female leader in the island-state’s long history. She has nurtured a continuing strong economy, while ratcheting back cross-strait relations from their earlier peak under President Ma. Much of the fault here lies with Xi Jinping (習近平), who has forsaken moderate steps to ease cross-strait tensions in favor of a more muscular and bullying approach to the island-state. Tsai’s support for the high-tech sector has buffered Taiwan through recent global economic difficulties, even as she has turned aside the threats and blandishments of Xi’s authoritarian regime.

Unlike the autocratic Xi, President Tsai will step down from office after her second term ends in 2024. She will carry with her an admirable record of sustaining Taiwan economically through the global Covid crisis, navigating the treacherous waters of cross-strait relations, and maintaining enduring bilateral ties with the island’s main defender, the United States. America can be proud of this plucky leader, who enjoys solid US connections through her education and her frequent visits over the years.

Though Taiwan continues to face the slow hemorrhage of “diplomatic allies” as Beijing targets the dwindling number of states enjoying formal diplomatic relations, Tsai has bolstered unofficial ties with important friends. Taipei’s ties with Tokyo have been growing. Ms. Tsai has skillfully used transit stops in the US to meet friends and supporters. Taipei also enjoys close links to neighboring states like Vietnam, India, Indonesia, South Korea, the Philippines — the list goes on.

I have no doubt this impressive leader will continue to play a prominent role in Taiwan politics following her two-term presidency. Having been fortunate to watch her spectacular political trajectory over the past 25 years, I look forward to tracking her future contributions to Taiwan’s development in the years to come.

Ambassador Stephen M. Young (ret.) lived in Kaohsiung as a boy over 50 years ago, and served in AIT four times: as a young consular officer (1981-’82), as a language student (1989-’90), as Deputy Director (1998-2001) and as Director (2006-’9). He visits often and writes regularly about Taiwan matters. Young was also US Ambassador to Kyrgyzstan and Consul General to Hong Kong during his 33-year career as a foreign service officer. He has a BA from Wesleyan University and a PhD from the University of Chicago.