Taiwan’s new Mainland Affairs Council chief may signal shift in policy on Beijing, analysts say

Lawrence Chung
·4-min read

Former Taiwanese justice minister Chiu Tai-san has taken charge of the Mainland Affairs Council as part of a reshuffle, an appointment seen as an effort to ease tensions with Beijing.

Chiu has taken a relatively moderate stand on relations with mainland China compared to other politicians in the pro-independence camp, and analysts say the change could signal a move by President Tsai Ing-wen’s government to adjust its confrontational cross-strait policy.

Taipei on Friday said Chiu would replace Chen Ming-tong as head of policymaking body the Mainland Affairs Council. Chen will head up the National Security Bureau, whose former chief Chiu Kuo-cheng will be the new defence minister. He takes over from Yen Te-fa, who will become Tsai’s national security adviser.

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Announcing the reshuffle, Tsai’s spokesman Xavier Chang said the changes had been made in response to a new phase of regional and international politics in the post-pandemic era.

At a ceremony on Tuesday, 64-year-old Chiu said the Mainland Affairs Council was likely to “make preparations and assessments to map out new policies and strategies” for dealing with Beijing.

Chiu, who has previously served as vice-chairman of the council, also called for Beijing to take a more pragmatic approach and set aside its insistence that the 1992 consensus on “one China” must pave the way for the resumption of cross-strait talks.

“The consensus has been in dispute in Taiwan for a long time … and the new interpretation added by the mainland side has left [Taiwan] little room for manoeuvre and made it difficult for the Taiwanese public to accept,” Chiu said, adding that the two sides needed to find a way to address the issue.

He was referring to an understanding reached nearly three decades ago that there is only one China, but each side can have its own interpretation of what that means. In recent years, Beijing removed the part about separate interpretations and Tsai refused to accept this when she took office in 2016. Beijing – which sees Taiwan as part of its territory, to be brought under its control by force if necessary – responded by suspending official exchanges and stepping up military and diplomatic pressure on the self-ruled island.

Chiu said he hoped the two sides could move towards “exchanges based on pragmatism”.

“If political exchanges are too sensitive … and there is not enough mutual trust, we can always start with non-political, economic, social and cultural exchanges to build up mutual trust before taking on higher-level issues,” he said.

Relations with Beijing have deteriorated since President Tsai Ing-wen took office. Photo: dpa
Relations with Beijing have deteriorated since President Tsai Ing-wen took office. Photo: dpa

Analysts said the reshuffle, including Chiu’s appointment, was a necessary move with Joe Biden in the White House, since he might not continue the confrontational China policy of his predecessor, Donald Trump.

“For Taiwan, the most important global political development is the change of the US government and the possible impact brought by the Biden administration on US-Taiwan-China relations,” said Chao Chun-shan, a professor emeritus with the Institute of China Studies at Tamkang University in Taipei.

He said Trump’s use of Taiwan as a pawn in his strategy with Beijing had inflamed cross-strait tensions, but Biden could seek to cooperate with Beijing in areas like climate change, even while disputes over trade, security and human rights continued.

“With Taiwan being identified as a potential flashpoint in the region, Biden does not want to see cross-strait conflict disrupting his foreign policy,” Chao said.

He said that was why Biden’s Indo-Pacific coordinator chief Kurt Campbell told a forum in December that a degree of “productive and quiet dialogue” between Beijing and Taipei was “in everyone’s best strategic interests”.

Veteran US diplomat Kurt Campbell said a degree of “productive and quiet dialogue” between Beijing and Taipei was “in everyone’s best strategic interests”. Photo: Reuters
Veteran US diplomat Kurt Campbell said a degree of “productive and quiet dialogue” between Beijing and Taipei was “in everyone’s best strategic interests”. Photo: Reuters

Stephen Tan, president of Taipei-based think tank the Cross-Strait Policy Association, said Chiu was a moderate who could be expected to take a more pragmatic approach.

He added that Tsai was responding to the new situation and signals from the Biden administration, which was why she had called on Beijing several times to resume talks in the post-pandemic era.

“[Chiu’s] appointment suggests there will be gradual but significant changes to cross-strait policy in the next two years,” Tan said.

But Wang Kung-yi, who heads the Taiwan International Strategic Study Society think tank in Taipei, said the dispute over the 1992 consensus would need to be resolved before any restart of exchanges.

“Unless the two sides can broker a new deal to replace the consensus it is unlikely Beijing will want to resume talks with Taipei,” Wang said. “The ball is in Beijing’s court, and appointing a new council chairman won’t change that.”

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