The horn of a diplomatic war between Taiwan and China has been blown in the latest row over four new commercial flight routes initiated upon the west half of the Taiwan Strait in January. This sky row may foretell a coming year of disaster for Taiwan’s external relations under China’s fresh squeeze.
Status Quo No More
It should not be a surprise to see China enable these new routes, which were approved by the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) but postponed since the negotiation with Taiwan in March 2015. President Xi Jinping might offer the previous concession to his then counterpart President Ma Ying-jeou as a reward to Ma’s friendly mainland policy. Xi has since completely withdrawn his goodwill from the current President Tsai Ing-wen—perhaps as a punishment for her separatist approach.
Yet Taiwan’s strong reaction this time is a surprise. Tsai condemned Xi’s unilateral action as the violation of the status quo in cross-Strait relations, and let her diplomats propagandize harshly this accusation in all countries. Within a month, over 130 international reports and letters appeared on pages of global and local newspapers—an effort by Taiwan to convey a clear message that the status quo in the Taiwan Strait had been changed and all the blame should fall on China.
Meanwhile, Taiwan’s lobby for official support from other major countries, especially from the United States, was not successful. None of them tried to intervene the decision of the ICAO. Taiwan’s sanction on two Chinese airlines ceasing their additional flights during Lunar New Year holidays also backfired, whilst the punishment fell mainly on Taiwanese travelers who returned to the island for a family reunion. Taiwan apparently trapped itself in a corner and could not escape from China’s grasp.
Ever since President Tsai was inaugurated in May 2016, President Xi has made clear that he intends to streamline bilateral affairs across the Taiwan Strait. The official channel of communication established between Ma and Xi’s administration was frozen from Tsai’s first day in office. Millions of Chinese tourists and thousands of Chinese students were discouraged to visit or study in Taiwan. Due to China’s objection, Taiwan lost the opportunity to attend the annual World Health Assembly and the ICAO’s triennial assembly. Sao Tome and Principe was lured by China’s dollar diplomacy. Panama covered its diplomatic negotiation with China from its centennial friend, Taiwan, until the last moment. China’s military aircrafts and the aircraft carrier, the Liaoning, started to skirt the island on a hostile but regular basis. China detained a Taiwanese democratic activist for a year and ignored all protests from Taiwan. Without cross-Strait negotiation, fourteen countries have been requested to deport 674 Taiwanese scam suspects to China for trails, while 288 are already in China’s jails.
What went wrong with this pair of leaders across the Taiwan Strait?
Xi does not trust Tsai, nor does he feel obligated to negotiate or just communicate with her about his decisions on Taiwan affairs. Xi was willing to cooperate with Ma for a singular but simple reason: Ma’s mainland policy was based on the 1992 Consensus—which recognizes one China but allows different interpretations—and was at least against the eventual separatism of Taiwan. In Xi’s unprecedented summit meeting with Ma in November 2015 in Singapore, Xi defined this “agreement of disagreement” as the “ anchor” of cross-Strait relations and made it the highest doctrine in his Taiwan policy. Yet Tsai has so far rejected this Consensus. Xi has therefore chosen to dominate Tsai, instead of cooperating with her.
However, Tsai does not trust Xi, either. Tsai continued to call Xi to return to the negotiation table yet received no positive replies, and she was therefore reluctant to make further concession in the mainland policy set from the first day of her presidency.
In her inaugural address, Tsai promised to manage mainland affairs according to the Republic of China Constitution, which defines the cross-Strait relations as a relationship between two areas—the liberal (Taiwan) area and the mainland area—within one China. By highlighting her respect for the “joint acknowledgements and understandings” reached between two sides in the 1992 meeting in Hong Kong, she tried to accommodate the concept of the 1992 Consensus in an implicit way while avoiding direct usage of the term. This political stance is indeed a great leap forward comparing to the traditional policy doctrine in pursuit of a de jure independence of Taiwan for the ruling Democratic Progressive Party.
It would thus be unfair to overlook Tsai’s significant adjustment on her mainland policy, but the current problem is nothing more to be expected for the future. Tsai’s policy limitation is crystal clear. She is unlikely to accept the 1992 Consensus—which Xi would welcome—although her current stance is just a step away. It too seems impossible for her to remove or just to freeze the independence clause in her party platform—which Xi should also appreciate—despite the fact that the clause is seldom mentioned nowadays. She is even unwilling to launch another inner-party debate over China’s strategy following the first successful debate held in 1998. Because of these limitations, her mainland policy has lost its dynamics, which is where the true danger lies.
No Trust, No Future
Tsai’s presidency is approaching its midterm. To date, she has failed to deliver a constructive cross-Strait relation that was based on a virtuous circle of repeated interaction. No mutual trusts have been accumulated in the past two years, and her time is up. The coming local election held this November and the general and presidential elections scheduled in March 2020 would only make things worse. The current sky row could be the straw that breaks the camel’s back, while the Vatican could be the next bomb.
The Chinese-speaking people just sent off the Year of the Chicken and have received the Year of Dog. A Chinese idiom may mock this special moment of transition—Chicken Fly, Dog Jump—which has a meaning similar to an English idiom: to put the cat among the pigeons. The Taiwan Strait without a status quo in the coming year may reflect this chaos.
Dr. Charles I-hsin Chen is a research fellow at the Centre for Rising Powers, University of Cambridge. He received an economic PhD from University of London and became the Spokesman to Taiwan’s Presidential Office and the ruling Kuomintang Party during 2014 to 2016. His recent articles appeared in Foreign Affairs, Foreign Affairs (Japan), Foreign Policy, The Diplomat, Financial Times, Japan Times, Straits Times, etc.
Image: China Eastern Airlines planes are seen on the tarmac at Hongqiao International Airport in Shanghai, July 29, 2014. REUTERS/Aly Song/File Photo