No Easy Way Out: A Creative Bargain to Ensure Peace Between China and Taiwan

It is worth considering a deal which might ensure Taiwan’s independence while satisfying Chinese interests.

Chinese President Xi Jinping and Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou recently met in Singapore. Never before has Beijing treated the island’s government as an equal. It was a small step for peace, but the circle remains to be squared. China insists that Taiwan is a wayward province, while the vast majority of Taiwanese feel no allegiance to the People’s Republic of China (PRC). If, as expected, Taiwan’s opposition presidential candidate Tsai Ing-wen wins the election in January, relations between the two states are likely to shift into reverse.

The island of Formosa, or Taiwan, was an imperial Chinese territory, ceded to Japan in 1895 after the latter’s victory in the First Sino-Japanese War. The island reverted to China with Tokyo’s defeat in 1945, but four years later Taiwan separated from the mainland when the Kuomintang (KMT) government relocated to Taipei following the triumph of the Chinese Communist Party. For decades the Republic of China—ruled by KMT refugees—claimed to be the legitimate government of the mainland, but reality eventually forced Taiwan to abandon that pretense. In 1992 the two governments agreed that there was only one China, but disagreed on what that meant. Taipei continues to promote a separate identity, maintaining diplomatic relations with 21 countries and the Vatican.

The PRC holds a very different perspective: long ago stolen away, the errant province should be returned to Beijing. This attitude is shared by the government and public—even most liberal students I’ve met—alike. Although Deng Xiaoping famously advocated patience in dealing with Taiwan, Beijing’s growing power has encouraged China’s leaders to press the island to accept some form of “one country, two systems.” The PRC reacted particularly badly when the Taiwanese elected as president the Democratic Progressive Party’s Chen Shui-bian, who supported independence. But Beijing’s attempts to intimidate Taiwan proved counterproductive.

In recent years, the PRC has hoped that closer economic and cultural ties would move the two countries closer to union. Where war once threatened, ferries now run regularly from the mainland to Taiwan’s Kinmen Island. The Ma government agreed to a score of measures easing economic and cultural ties; bilateral trade has almost doubled since 2005 and many Taiwanese businesses have committed to the mainland. Nearly four million Chinese visited the island last year.

Yet Taiwan is steadily moving away from the PRC. The older KMT generation has died off and native Taiwanese gained influence as the island democratized. Younger Taiwanese feel little connection to the mainland. Last year, students occupied the legislative Yuan for nearly a month to protest a proposed economic accord. A large majority of Taiwanese fear that Beijing will use Taiwan’s economic dependence to advance China’s political agenda. Although most Taiwanese favor talking with Beijing, more than eighty percent back independence—if it would not trigger Chinese military action. Just 7.3 percent advocated reunification last year, down from twenty percent in 2003.

Now the KMT is likely to lose the presidency and possibly the legislature. Unpopular President Ma presides over a stagnant economy and is seen as too accommodating to Beijing. In desperation, the KMT recently dumped its presidential nominee. The DPP has formally abandoned its support for independence, but no one, least of all China, believes the shift to be heartfelt. The DPP is unlikely to enter into serious negotiations leading to reunification.

Which leaves the PRC’s Taiwan strategy in ruins. Continued emphasis on building economic ties means the triumph of hope over experience. Reverting to intimidation would drive Taiwan further away and reinforce regional antagonism toward Beijing. Military action would trigger diplomatic isolation, encourage economic sanctions and risk war with America.

This likely explains President Xi’s decision, reportedly over strenuous opposition in Beijing, to meet with President Ma. The last contact between the Communist and Nationalist leaders occurred in August 1945, when the U.S. pressed talks over a coalition government. With President Ma an unpopular lame duck, no substantive agreement was likely. The two presidents merely reiterated the 1992 consensus and issued mostly platitudes. President Ma complained about China’s provocative military moves, which President Xi implausibly said were not directed at Taiwan. The two presidents called each other “mister” to avoid officially recognizing the other.

Beijing presumably hoped the meeting would encourage Taiwanese to vote for the KMT in order to further reduce cross-strait tensions. President Xi proclaimed: “History will remember this day” and argued that “There’s no force that can separate us, because we are brothers who are still connected by our flesh even if our bones are broken.” But few Taiwanese believe that. So he also warned that failure to uphold the 1992 consensus could cause cross-strait relations to “encounter surging waves, or even completely capsize.”

President Ma was upbeat, calling the discussions “cordial” and “positive” and describing President Xi as “pragmatic, flexible and frank.” But the commitments to additional cooperation were minimal. DPP presidential candidate Tsai criticized President Ma for failing to defend the right of Taiwanese to make their own decisions. Moreover, the transparency of China’s gambit worked against its success. Some analysts speculated that the meeting reinforced the KMT’s public image as a Chinese patsy.

Nevertheless, the two nations should jaw-jaw rather than war-war, to paraphrase Winston Churchill. At least Beijing decided to engage Taiwan diplomatically, while Taipei believed it had to respond to China’s overture.