China Demolishes the Taiwan Consensus

Xi Jinping is trying to move the goalposts beyond the 1992 Consensus.

After decades of high tensions between Taipei and Beijing and the looming shadow of a devastating war between the United States and China, relations in the Taiwan Strait underwent a major transformation in 2008 with the election of Ma Ying-jeou and the return to power of the Kuomintang (KMT).

Over the seven years that followed Ma’s victory, Taipei and Beijing made substantial strides in liberalizing their interactions, signing 21 bilateral agreements, opening the floodgates of tourism and investment, and facilitating academic exchanges. Amid the cross-strait summits and handshakes, the international community breathed a sigh of relief, optimistic that the old tinderbox could soon be shelved—as long as we ignored, that is, the mounting apprehensions of a segment of Taiwanese society, which saw behind the rapprochement evidence of Beijing’s machinations to bring about “one China.”

Those fears notwithstanding, it would be difficult to argue that progress wasn’t made in fostering more amicable relations. Instrumental to that success was the so-called “1992 Consensus,” a rhetorical construct that became the mechanism under which Taipei and Beijing, through their respective semi-official agencies, conducted dialogue and negotiated agreements. Although its legitimacy is very much in question—Lee Teng-hui, who was Taiwan’s president at the time of its alleged creation, denies its existence, and the opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) does not accept it as a precondition—the Consensus has provided enough common ground and sufficient wiggle room to permit constructive exchanges between the two sides.

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For the KMT, the Consensus was the platform, while the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) set it as the prerequisite for negotiations. Both sides papered over their ideological differences and agreed to disagree on the “one China” clause at the center of the Consensus: both agreed in principle that there is “one China,” but conceded that there are differences on what they mean by “one China.”

This charade may have been imperfect and its validity may be questionable, but the framework yielded dividends and allowed the relationship to flourish, so much so that Taiwan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs has described it as the “foundation for cross-strait peace and stronger international links.”

Given what has been achieved under the Consensus, it would be logical to assume that Beijing would seek its continuation. However, recent comments by Chinese President and CCP Chairman Xi Jinping, as well as articles appearing in official Chinese media, indicate that the Consensus no longer suffices. What Beijing seems to have in mind could have serious ramifications for cross-strait stability and is sure to cause a storm in Taiwan’s political scene, where the framework is already regarded as controversial and unpalatable to the DPP.

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Xi now insists that future exchanges will be contingent on the Taiwanese side acceding to the Consensus minus the part about “different interpretations.” In other words, the built-in flexibility that has made the Consensus a success is to be obviated, and the baseline has moved. Beijing’s new position is that there is only “one China,” of which Taiwan and “the Mainland” are indivisible components. By adhering to this new concept, Xi said, political parties in Taiwan should not have any problems dealing with the “Mainland.” (Significantly, many Chinese visitors to Taiwan in recent years have insisted on being called da lu ren—“people from the Mainland”—rather than zhong guo ren, or “Chinese people.”)

This departure from a framework that has arguably served as a “foundation for peace across the Taiwan Strait” underscores Xi’s growing impatience with the slow pace of progress (in Beijing’s view) in resolving the Taiwan “question.” It is also part of a strategy of gradual escalation, one in which the norms, or baselines, are constantly shifting to reflect Beijing’s preferences.

By moving the goalposts, China forces Taipei to whittle away its sovereignty simply to be able to continue negotiations with China and to avoid resurrecting the tensions that previously threatened regional peace and stability. Boiled down to its essence, Beijing’s strategy is to set the rules and to cultivate the perception through a sustained propaganda campaign that whoever refuses to play by them (as the DPP likely will) is a “troublemaker” who risks plunging the region into an unwanted war. Furthermore, Beijing knows that it can count on Washington and other capitals, fixated as they are on avoiding conflict with China, to pressure Taipei to recognize the new lines in the sand.

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