Taiwan's Pro-China Opposition Suffers Identity Crisis as Chief Admits Beijing Threat

The chief of Taiwan's main opposition has doubled down on his description of China as a security threat, but faces a forthcoming leadership challenge that could shift the party away from the island's youth and toward closer ties with Beijing.

Johnny Chiang, 49, marked one year as chairman of the China-friendly Kuomintang (KMT) on Tuesday. He has vowed to modernize the party—following consecutive presidential election defeats in 2016 and 2020—and rethink some of its decades-old policies, which have become unpopular among the country's China-skeptic younger voters.

Following a Reuters interview last week, Chiang—one of the KMT's youngest-ever leaders—was chided by Beijing after calling the cross-strait neighbor a "major threat." The Chinese government's Taiwan Affairs Office cautioned Chiang against falling into a "populist trap of irrational and confrontational thinking."

The KMT chairman defended and expanded on his view in a subsequent radio interview, saying of escalating Chinese air force activity around Taiwan: "Don't you think our citizens would see that as a threat?"

He called on China to renounce the use of force against Taiwan. "The use of force is threatening," he said, adding China presented not only threats, but also opportunities and challenges for those in government.

Chinese media lobbed further criticism at Chiang, accusing him of associating the KMT with the ideologies of Taiwan's ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), which won 72 percent of the ballots cast by voters under the age of 40 in last January's presidential election, according to Academia Sinica, Taiwan's national research academy.

Despite differing views that have emerged from pro-China factions within the KMT, analysts say Chiang's comments will have been welcomed by Taiwan's youth, who see the reality in his description, and whose vote the party will want to secure.

However, the party's posture could shift once more depending on the outcome of this July's chairmanship election, which is expected to be contested by a record number of candidates—including some who prefer more intimate political and economic ties with Beijing.

"Chiang's comments on China posing a security threat to Taiwan is basically correct in the sense that it reflects how Taiwanese people perceive China right now," said Yeh-chung Lu, a professor at National Chengchi University in Taipei.

Chiang's mention of opportunities and threats highlights the important balance that must be struck for Taiwan, he said, adding: "At this moment, China is posing more threats to Taiwan than opportunities."

According to Lu's analysis, Chiang's remarks represent "a very significant shift within the KMT" when it comes to cross-strait policy, which could benefit the party as it vies for the country's younger constituency in both next year's midterms and the presidential race in 2024.

"But how long this can last, I'm not sure," he said.

Among Beijing's criticisms of the current Taiwanese government led by President Tsai Ing-wen has been its outright rejection of the disputed "1992 Consensus"—an agreement struck by representatives of the two governments, tacitly allowing for different interpretations of "one China."

It had served as part of the basis for cross-strait exchange between China and Taiwan when the KMT was in power, but in recent years, Beijing's interpretation of the phrase has extended to include more emphasis on its one-China principle, which claims Taiwan as part of the Chinese government's territory, and the "one country, two systems" formula Beijing uses to govern Hong Kong and Macau.

Chiang rejected the administrative model during his Reuters interview, saying one country, two systems had "no market" in Taiwan. However, the party appears to be sticking with the 1992 Consensus despite the policy having proved unpopular with Taiwan's younger voters.

Jessica Drun, a policy analyst and non-resident fellow at the Project 2049 Institute in Virginia, said any move away from the 1992 Consensus toward a new baseline for dialog would depend heavily on political will in Beijing.

"The 'consensus' in the '1992 Consensus' of a common 'one China' is a myth and is grounded more in the KMT and CCP's mutual willingness to come to the table," Drun said.

As relations between Beijing and Taipei have broken down over the basis for cross-strait talks and threats of a military occupation grow, the opposition party has put itself forward as a solution to the dangerous impasse, one that might help prevent armed conflict.

"I think there's the perception and realization in Taiwan that China will pursue whatever avenues are available to it to compel unification, regardless of which party is in power, and that Beijing is unlikely to stand by any of its supposed reassurances—having seen how this played out in Hong Kong," said Drun.

She added: "Even if we assume that the KMT being in power would deter a military attack—which I'm not convinced is true—that doesn't preclude campaigns for economic dependence, continued United Front efforts, or any other moves towards greater integration of Taiwan with China."

Chiang has said he will not seek the KMT's presidential ticket in 2024, but if he is re-elected chairman this summer, a strong midterm performance for his party could generate support for his nomination.

Supporters of Kuomintang Party Attend Rally
File photo: Supporters of Taiwan's main opposition party Kuomintang attend a rally for former Kaohsiung City Mayor Han Kuo-yu on June 1, 2019. DANIEL SHIH/AFP via Getty Images