Time for China and Taiwan to reassess cross-strait policies

January 14, 2020 08:31
President Tsai Ing-wen, who has won a second term, said her administration has maintained “a non-provocative, non-adventurist attitude that has prevented serious conflict from breaking out in the Taiwan Strait”. Photo: Reuters

The election last Saturday, in which Tsai Ing-wen won a second term as president, shows democracy maturing in Taiwan, which only started direct presidential elections in 1996. Political power has now changed hands three times between the Kuomintang (KMT) and the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), with each of the three winners being elected to two four-year terms.

Cross-strait relations played a dominant role in the election. In her acceptance speech, President Tsai said that the DPP administration had been “willing to maintain healthy exchanges with China” but, despite “China’s diplomatic pressure and military threats”, it had maintained “a non-provocative, non-adventurist attitude that has prevented serious conflict from breaking out in the Taiwan Strait”.

That clearly isn’t the way Beijing sees the situation. A Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman, Geng Shuang, called on the international community to “understand and support the just cause of Chinese people to oppose the secessionist activities for ‘Taiwan independence’ and realize national reunification”.

The Taiwan Affairs Office of the State Council issued a statement addressing Taiwan, saying that the Chinese government was willing to “work with its compatriots in Taiwan to promote the peaceful development of cross-strait relations and advance the peaceful reunification of the homeland”.

Neither the Foreign Ministry nor the Taiwan Affairs Office mentioned Hong Kong in its statement. But Hong Kong was a key factor in the outcome of the presidential election, with the anti-government protests in the city boosting Tsai’s stock as concerns in Taiwan rose over China’s “one country, two systems” principle, which is also meant to apply to the island.

Tsai has had a poor relationship with the mainland from the beginning of her presidency because she declined to accept the “one China” position of her predecessor, Ma Ying-jeou of the KMT. As a result, Beijing cut off its dialogue with Taiwan and has put economic, political and military pressure on Taiwan.

The latest Chinese statements suggest that China is likely to continue, if not strengthen, its hardline policy.

But continuing this policy, perhaps even adding to the pressure, is likely to be counterproductive since it will further alienate the people of Taiwan.

Tsai’s mainland policy is also bringing her a host of problems, political and economic. The Chinese mainland, because of geographical, cultural and linguistic bonds, is Taiwan’s natural economic partner. But Tsai is seeking new partners to avoid being dependent on the mainland and thus vulnerable to pressure.

It is certainly positive that Beijing’s stated policy remains peaceful reunification, its position since the 1980s, when Deng Xiaoping was the paramount leader. Under Chairman Mao Zedong, China vowed to “liberate” Taiwan. However, Mao told Henry Kissinger, US President Richard Nixon’s national security adviser, in 1972 that China could wait 100 years to be reunified with Taiwan.

The policy of reunification through “one country, two systems” formulated under Deng was first applied to Hong Kong and Macau. Now, China is eager to complete the task by bringing Taiwan back into the fold.

But while Hong Kong and Macau were colonies of Britain and Portugal, respectively, Taiwan in 1945 was returned to the Republic of China by Japan and has been governed by Chinese since then. There is no foreign government to deal with, only fellow Chinese, from Beijing’s perspective.

After the communists won the civil war in 1949, the KMT government of President Chiang Kai-shek relocated to Taipei and, for many years, vowed to reunite China by counterattacking the mainland. So both the Communists and the KMT agreed that Taiwan and the mainland were parts of one country. But the KMT long ago abandoned that policy and, in any event, is no longer in power.

Now that Taiwan is a democracy, no government can agree to reunification without obtaining the consent of the people. This means, essentially, that Beijing has to win over the hearts and minds of the people of Taiwan. Economic sanctions, military maneuvers and political pressure are unlikely to achieve this goal. This can only be done by offering carrots, not brandishing sticks.

The elections last week show that at this time most Taiwanese have little interest in unification. Peaceful reunification by definition is a long-term project. Soft power is required and mainland China needs to make itself attractive so that Taiwan people will want reunification.

This may be a good time for Taiwan, too, to reassess its long-term relationship with the mainland. The island cannot change its geographical location. Both Beijing and Taiwan should rethink cross-strait issues. Neither side should put their crucial cross-straits policy on autopilot. That course is leading them into a blind alley.

– Contact us at [email protected]


Frank Ching opened The Wall Street Journal’s Bureau in China in 1979. He is now a Hong Kong-based writer on Chinese affairs.