17 September 2019
Activists protest outside the Ministry of Economic Affairs in Taipei against the meeting in Singapore  between Ma Ying-jeou and Xi Jinping. Photo: Reuters
Activists protest outside the Ministry of Economic Affairs in Taipei against the meeting in Singapore between Ma Ying-jeou and Xi Jinping. Photo: Reuters

How Taiwan fell into Beijing’s ‘one China’ trap

From an international perspective, Taiwan and China are two different countries, as each has its own government and territory.

But in their historic meeting at the weekend, the leaders of Taiwan and China did not recognize this fact.

Instead, they emphasized to the global community that the island is part of China and there is no such country as Taiwan or the Republic of China (ROC).

Ma Ying-jeou embraced the “one China” concept, drawing massive criticism from the people of Taiwan, who were outraged that their president had failed to defend his own country in front of his counterpart.

While Taiwan’s people didn’t expect much from the meeting between Ma and Xi Jinping on Saturday — the first between the leaders of both sides since the civil war between the Communists and the Nationalists ended in 1949 — they didn’t expect Ma, who won 6.89 million votes in the 2012 presidential election, to bow to pressure from Beijing by saying he agreed with the “one China” principle.

What’s more, he failed to mention that his government, the government of the ROC, effectively rules more than 24 million people in Taiwan, where Xi’s People’s Republic of China (PRC) has no control.

Some political observers believe that the Ma-Xi meeting indicates Beijing recognizes Taiwan as an independent political entity — at least, it agreed to accept that the meeting was between the “leaders from both sides of the Taiwan Strait”.

But now the meeting is over, it seems that Ma fell into the “one China” trap set by Xi, since Ma did not defend Taiwan’s bottom line — which dates back to the consensus the two sides reached in Hong Kong in 1992 — that it will continue to have its own interpretation of the “one China” principle.

Instead, Ma may have given the impression that Taiwan accepts the rule of the PRC, rather than its own government of the ROC.

One of the most telling issues raised in the Ma-Xi meeting was the thousands of missiles in the mainland aimed at Taiwan.

When Ma expressed his concern to Xi and his hopes for a withdrawal of those missiles, Xi’s reply, as quoted by Ma, was that the missiles are part of China’s military strategy and not focused on Taiwan.

That response drew massive criticism from Taiwan, and even Ma himself wasn’t quite satisfied with Xi’s reply.

Ma’s failure to avoid the “one China” trap disappointed many people in Taiwan, especially young people and the elderly.

Young Taiwanese do not want to live under the threat of China’s forcible reunification.

The elderly have considered the Communist Party their enemy since the civil war in the 1940s that forced the Kuomintang (or Nationalist Party) government of the ROC to retreat to the island.

They can’t accept their president shaking hands with the leader of the enemy.

Taiwan’s people had hoped Ma would urge Beijing to accept the fact that the government of the ROC still rules Taiwan.

But after the meeting, internet users, mostly young people, expressed deep disappointment, saying: “Ma betrayed the ROC” and “We should oust the Kuomintang to defend our sovereignty”.

That is not surprising, as at least half of the people of Taiwan embrace an independent Taiwan rather than an island subject to the “one China” restriction.

Their passports have “Taiwan” on the cover and they enjoy visa-free entry to 132 countries, including the United States and Japan.

They elect their own president and members of parliament and the local governments.

They don’t want their nation’s development limited by an external entity called the PRC.

So, how can they be expected to accept that they are part of one China?

Tsai Ing-wen, chairwoman of the pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party and its candidate in the presidential election next year, criticized the Ma-Xi meeting as an attempt to limit the ability of the people of the island to decide on the future of cross-strait relations by setting the precondition of the “one China” principle on the international stage.

Taiwan’s people are divided over the Ma-Xi meeting.

A survey conducted by United Daily News on Monday said about 37 percent of the respondents agreed with the outcome of the meeting, and 34 percent of them didn’t.

But interestingly, more than 60 percent hope for a meeting between Tsai and Xi in the future.

The desire of Taiwan’s people is clear: they want their leader to establish a normal relationship with equal status with the mainland, but not under the “one China” framework.

It’s clear that the Ma-Xi meeting is a tactic by the Communists and the Kuomintang to discourage Taiwan’s people from voting for the pro-independence Tsai in the upcoming election.

But the fact is that far from advocating independence during her campaign, Tsai has adopted a policy of maintaining the status quo in cross-strait relations, so as to win the support of the silent majority.

What Tsai insists is that Taiwan shouldn’t link its fate to China or the authorities in Beijing.

The worst thing about the Ma-Xi meeting is that it focused on “one China” but not on the existence of self-rule in the ROC.

What’s the definition of “one China”?

There is no black-and-white document that contains it.

But the phrase has been captured by Beijing, which interprets it as the PRC.

But most people in Taiwan prefer to live under the rule of the ROC government without the PRC’s shadow looming over it.

They want their democratic government, no matter whether it is formed by the Kuomintang of DPP, to be able to communicate directly and normally with Beijing without any preconditions.

The precondition of “one China” shouldn’t be an obstacle to such communication.

Beijing should respect the choice of Taiwan’s people about their future when they cast their votes in January.

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EJ Insight writer