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Former Taiwanese diplomat to be elected head of Taipei’s top cross-strait negotiator

Taiwan’s Straits Exchange Foundation is set to elect a former diplomat to head the quasi-official agency, responsible for negotiating with the mainland China, on Monday afternoon.

The foundation’s board members will hold a provisional meeting to elect new members, including Tien Hung-mao as chairman and Mainland Affairs Council Deputy Minister Chang Tien-chin as the vice-chairman, who will then be appointed by Tien to double as the secretary general.

Monday’s meeting was organised after President Tsai Ing-wen named Tien as the only candidate for the position on August 31.

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The position has been left vacant for nearly four months since Tsai, of the Democratic Progressive Party, took office in May – a sign the president, who leads a party that traditionally has been sceptical of closer ties with the mainland China, has had a hard time finding the right person to carry out her China policy and be accepted by Beijing.

Tien, 77, was recruited by the former DPP administration, which ruled the island from 2000 to 2008, first as foreign minister and then de facto ambassador to Britain.

While some questioned his credentials, Presidential Office spokesman Alex Huang was quick to defend him.

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Huang said Tien had “devoted himself to [mainland] China studies when he was pursuing an advanced degree while teaching in the United States” and that he is “intimately familiar with the developments in [mainland] China.”

Huang also praised Tien for his dedication to “promoting Taiwan’s participation in the international community” and “playing a role in the democratisation of Taiwan”.

Seeking to placate his critics, Tien recently told a radio interview that he had experienced meeting then-Communist Party general secretary Jiang Zemin in Beijing in 1993.

They had discussed that year’s Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) meeting, and he had asked Beijing to refrain from opposing the attendance of then-Taiwanese President Lee Teng-hui.

Tien said he believed his meeting with Jiang would help his work at the SEF.

However, Beijing has made it clear that the key to cross-strait ties lies in the recognition of the “1992 consensus”, rather than who occupies the position.

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The “1992 consensus” refers to a tacit understanding, reportedly reached that year by Taiwan’s then-ruling Kuomintang and the Communist Party, that there is only one China, with each side free to interpret what “China” means.

While Tsai does not recognise the “1992 consensus”, she recognises the “1992 talks”, at which she said both sides “arrived at various joint acknowledgements and understandings” in the spirit of “a political attitude of seeking common ground while setting aside differences”.

Dissatisfied with her “incomplete test answer”, mainland China’s agency responsible for ties with Taiwan announced in June that the official communications channel between the two sides had been suspended.

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Many are curious whether Tsai will authorise Tien to complete the unfinished answer sheet on her behalf.

Following Tien’s inauguration, he will immediately face two tests.

Taiwan’s participation in the 39th International Civil Aviation Organisation assembly, which will be held in Montreal, Canada from September 27 to October 7, is one issue.

Taipei has urged Beijing to negotiate the matter so it can attend the triennial event this year.

During former President Ma Ying-jeou’s presidency, Taipei was invited to attend the assembly for the first time in 2013 as “a guest” following a proposal by Beijing.

The other test at hand is Taiwan’s participation in the leaders’ summit of the APEC forum in Lima, Peru from November 19 to 20.

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Taipei is hoping Beijing will not oppose Tsai’s selection of her proxy to attend the annual event.