Dennis P. Halpin’s recent article contending that China is altering the status quo in the cross-strait relationship misses the mark. My research shows that there are three definitions of the status quo concept: the 1992 “consensus” status quo; the “dynamic” status quo; and the “parallel movement” status quo and, consequently, there are four status quo policies. Based upon these different definitions and policies, China is not changing the cross-strait status quo; rather it is enforcing its interpretation.
1992 “Consensus” Status Quo
The consensus status quo is a deal reached between the Communist Party of China (CPC) of China and the Kuomintang (KMT) on Taiwan. It originates from the agreement proposed by the KMT in 1992 to facilitate the development of cross-strait relations; both refer to it as the 1992 Consensus. From the KMT’s perspective, the consensus allows each side to maintain different interpretations of the meaning of “one China.” Based upon these different interpretations, they can maintain the political separation until the reunification/unification terms are established. But China and Taiwan’s KMT have different interpretations of the consensus status quo and thus promote different policies.
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For China, the consensus status quo means several things. It means a commitment to China’s interpretation of the concept of “one China,” which is the “One China Principle”. The One China Principle is China’s national-reunification strategy for Taiwan that calls for reunification of the two sides under a modified system of “one country, two systems”, as is practiced in Hong Kong and Macau. It also represents opposition to Taiwanese independence. China wants Taiwan, especially the current President Tsai Ying-wen of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), to accept its interpretation of the consensus status quo by verbalizing the phrase “1992 Consensus,” which President Tsai refuses to do.
The KMT supports the consensus status quo. But it promotes a different interpretation because it opposes China’s unilateral imposition of the “One China Principle” on Taiwan. Specifically, it objects to the political formula of “one country, two systems.” Although the KMT wants to unify Taiwan and China, according to my interviews they dislike the communist system. Consequently the KMT wants the CPC to accept its terms of unification. These terms include unification under a system of democracy and rule of law, which require, prior to the unification, that China introduce democratic reforms on the mainland.
Despite their differences, China and Taiwan’s KMT use the “Consensus” status quo as the framework to advance cross-strait ties. During Ma Ying-jeou’s administration, they used it to advance cultural, economic, educational and even political ties, which culminated in an unprecedented meeting between Presidents Ma Ying-jeou and Xi Jinping in Singapore in 2015. China sees the advancement of cross-strait ties as ways to encourage reunification under its terms, whereas Taiwan’s KMT views them as ways to initiate reforms on China that would result in unification under a system of democracy.
In sum, China and Taiwan’s KMT promote the consensus status quo but maintain different interpretations and expect different outcomes. China wants to reunify under the political formula of “one country, two systems,” whereas Taiwan’s KMT wants to unify under the system of democracy. Both agree that reunification / unification is inevitable and in the future they will become ‘one China’.
The DPP objects to the consensus status quo. For the DPP (like the KMT), it opposes the unilateral imposition of the “One China Principle” on Taiwan and reunification in accordance with the “one country, two systems” formula. The DPP objects to the consensus status quo because it assumes the two sides will reunify / unify and form ‘one China’. Moreover, it excludes the will of the Taiwanese people from the decisionmaking process on Taiwan’s future. It also hinders the Taiwanese leaders’ efforts to “deepen democracy” and promote the Taiwanese national identity. Accordingly, the DPP opposes the consensus status quo while actively promoting the cynamic status quo.
“Dynamic” Status Quo
The DPP adheres to the dynamic status quo. But the PRC, the KMT and the DPP all maintain different interpretations of what occurs under the dynamic status quo, which produces tensions in the cross-strait relationship when the DPP holds political power, as it does now.
The DPP’s dynamic status quo conflicts with China’s and the KMT’s consensus status quo because it aims to maintain Taiwan’s political separation from China indefinitely. From the DPP’s viewpoint (and the KMT’s) Taiwan is a sovereign and independent state, and the DPP uses the dynamic status quo to strengthen this status. Under the dynamic status quo, the DPP intends to advance Taiwan’s national identity. For example, it promotes the Taiwanese national identity over the Chinese national identity, a process referred to as Taiwanization or de-Sinification which is happening now on the island. The DPP also implements policies to “deepen democracy” and advance political arrangements. These include making revisions to the constitution and establishing the basis to hold national referenda, both of which China opposes. The dynamic status quo leaves the political relationship across the strait unchanged and allows that state to be continued forever, making independence a more likely outcome. If the DPP could continue the dynamic status quo forever, then it would be a form of Taiwan independence.
Currently, the DPP and China see each other as the source of tension in the cross-strait relationship. For the DPP, China is the problem because it wants to impose the consensus status quo on Taiwan while refusing to consider other cross-strait frameworks, such as a peace and stability framework. For China, the Tsai administration is the problem because it refuses to acknowledge the 1992 Consensus while actively promoting the dynamic status quo, which supports political separation indefinitely. Furthermore, for China, the U.S. Congress is challenging the consensus status quo because it aims to strengthen the U.S.-Taiwan relationship including advancing military-to-military ties, which could embolden Taiwanese independence forces on the island.
In sum, Taiwan’s DPP rejects the consensus status quo and follows a dynamic status quo, which seeks to bolster what it perceives as Taiwan’s independent and sovereign status. Given the DPP holds political power on Taiwan now, tensions between the DPP and China are high over their different status quo interpretations and policies.
“Parallel Movement” Status Quo
The third definition is “Parallel Movement” status quo. Parallel Movement means future generations on each side of the strait could reach a peaceful decision regarding the status of the relationship. The United States, the PRC, the KMT and the DPP all hold different positions on what happens under this form of status quo:
- The United States and Taiwan want China to issue a statement of no use of force or threat to use force against Taiwan to resolve issues;
- The United States and China want Taiwan to avoid any activities that could unilaterally change their interpretation of the status quo; Taiwan cannot take action to shift Taiwan from de facto independence toward de jure independence;
- China wants the DPP to introduce policies advancing reunification under the “one country, two systems” formula, including measures that could deepen economic and cultural ties and build political relations;
- The United States wants China and Taiwan to avoid taking action that unilaterally alters the cross-strait relationship; this includes resorting to the use of force (China) and introducing policies and making statements that move Taiwan towards de jure independence (DPP);
- The United States wants China and Taiwan to negotiate a peaceful settlement to the issue which should include the “assent of the Taiwanese people”;
- Taiwan wants continued support from the United States in accordance with the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act (TRA);
- China wants the United States to abandon the TRA because it violates the three joint U.S.-PRC communiqués. China wants the United States to stop selling arms to Taiwan as the sales might embolden independence elements who want the DPP to make a formal declaration of Taiwanese independence.
For China, the United States is attempting to alter the Parallel Movement status quo by promoting ties with Taiwan and changing the nature and scope of those ties. The United States has authorized a large arms package for Taiwan. The U.S. Congress has passed three pieces of legislation—the National Defense Authorization Act, the Taiwan Travel Act, and a law requiring the U.S. Secretary of State to help Taiwan regain observer status at the World Health Organization. Though weak, the legislations bolster U.S.-Taiwan ties and advance military ties. For China, they undermine the commitments the United States made to China in the three joint U.S.-PRC communiqués and send the wrong signals to Taiwanese independence forces on and off the island.
The Old New Battleground
Since the DPP assumed political power on Taiwan in 2016, Taiwan and China have battled over the different status quo interpretations, as each side is trying to implement different status quo policies. Concomitantly, each side is trying to compel the other to accept its respective interpretation of the concept. To date, the Tsai administration has refused to acknowledge the 1992 Consensus (like the Chen Shui-bian administration (DPP) (2000–2008). For China, this means the Tsai administration rejects the “One China Principle” and refuses to oppose Taiwanese independence (the DPP perceives Taiwan is already independent but needs to formalize this status in the constitution). China’s actions in the post-election period around Taiwan (and even farther afield) are directed at compelling Tsai’s administration to accept the consensus status quo by verbalizing the phrase “1992 Consensus.” From China’s viewpoint, the Tsai administration is altering the status quo because it refuses to recognize the consensus status quo. Until that time, China will violate cross-strait agreements reached with the Ma administration.
For Tsai’s administration, China is changing the status quo. It refuses to negotiate the current and future status of the cross-strait relationship. Instead China imposes preconditions on Taiwan prior to negotiations. Specifically, China wants Taiwan to adhere to the consensus status quo by verbalizing the phrase “1992 Consensus.” But the Tsai administration is unwilling to do it because it would undermine Taiwan’s perceived status as an independent and sovereign state.
The Tsai administration also challenges cross-strait ties. According to my interviews in Taiwan, China in the immediate post-election period sent high-level officials to Taiwan to continue the cross-strait policies of the previous administration (e.g., Ma Ying-jeou); however, the DPP sent a handful of low-level officials to the meeting. Some Taiwanese experts interpreted this move as a signal from Tsai’s administration to China that its administration is uninterested in maintaining all of the Ma administration’s cross-strait policies. It could be argued the Tsai administration initiated tensions in cross-strait ties while China contributed to the cycle of escalation.
Further, China looks to three key speeches delivered by the president of Taiwan in order to assess the new administration’s cross-strait policies. In the case of President Tsai, in all three speeches she not only downplayed the cross-strait relations but also avoided mentioning key concepts that signal her administration’s interest in deepening cross-strait ties within the existing frameworks (e.g., 1992 Consensus, one China). In place of these frameworks, Tsai’s administration proposes that the two sides reframe the cross-strait relationship using different frameworks that respect Taiwan’s sovereign and independent status.
The most accurate portrayal of the cross-strait situation however is that the Tsai administration shifted relations away from the consensus status quo that framed ties for eight years toward an active battleground between China’s consensus status quo and the DPP’s dynamic status quo.
Halperin’s article falls short because it works from the premise that all sides maintain the same interpretation of and same policies on the status quo. But based upon the different interpretations, it can be argued that neither China nor Taiwan’s DPP is altering the status quo. Rather, both sides are aggressively promoting policies that support their respective interpretations.
For the United States, the most salient issue is finding ways to navigate this battleground over the status quo while upholding its one China policy, particularly the commitments that the United States made to China in the three joint U.S.-PRC communiqués and to Taiwan in the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act.
Judith Norton, PhD, is the Managing Director of the East Asia Peace & Security Initiative. Norton worked in China for nearly a decade and was also a recipient of the ROC’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs Taiwan Fellowship.