What should China do if KMT scraps the 1992 Consensus?

March 19, 2020 08:02
Anti-mainland sentiment has flourished in Taiwan as Beijing continues to pressure the island. Photo: Reuters

Just as Beijing is basking in its success in containing the coronavirus outbreak, sentiment against the mainland has worsened in Taiwan amid China's insistence that the island is part of its territory and thus ineligible for World Health Organization membership.

The coronavirus was but one factor that heightened anti-mainland sentiment in Taiwan. Such feelings were built up over the last four years, as Beijing increasingly pressured Taiwan in the economic, diplomatic and military spheres. On top of all that was Beijing’s suppression of pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong.

When Taiwan's presidential-cum-legislative elections were held on Jan. 11, the Kuomintang’s identification as a “China-friendly” political party was toxic where many voters were concerned.

While Tsai Ing-wen, the incumbent president, voiced strong criticism of Beijing, the KMT candidate, Kaohsiung Mayor Han Kuo-yu, welcomed closer economic ties with the mainland and promised to “make Taiwan safe”, implying that good relations with Beijing would deter it from using force to take over the island.

The result was a landslide victory for Tsai, whose party also retained control of the legislature. Tsai herself, in celebrating her electoral triumph, pledged that her government “will not concede to threats and intimidation”. Everyone knew the source of such threats.

The KMT’s defeat caused the party to call for introspection and new leadership. A new chairman, the relatively youthful legislator Johnny Chiang, 48, was elected on March 7. One of his first acts was to urge the WHO to admit Taiwan.

Even before his election, Chiang had called for major reform within the party. Chiang indicated his willingness to scrap the so-called 1992 Consensus, which the KMT defines as “One China, respective interpretations”, with Beijing free to say that “China” means the People’s Republic of China but with Taipei free to understand it as the Republic of China.

Such ambiguity enabled the KMT and the Communist Party of China to have a cordial relationship over the last 15 years. In fact, each time the KMT elected a new chairman, the Chinese president, using his title as general secretary of the Communist Party, sent a congratulatory telegram. In 2017, Wu Den-yih received such a message from President Xi Jinping.

This month, however, after Chiang’s election, no telegram arrived from Xi. Clearly, Beijing knew that the KMT was contemplating changes the Communist Party considers unacceptable.

Zhu Fenglian, spokeswoman of China’s Taiwan Affairs Office, issued a statement calling on the new KMT leader to “cherish and maintain the common political foundation of the two parties”, which she defined as the 1992 Consensus and opposition to Taiwan independence. The mainland never mentions “respective interpretations”.

This is a dilemma for the KMT. It is in a no-win situation where voters won’t trust it with power because it is seen as China’s stooge and, if it distances itself from Beijing, it may become no more relevant than any of the minority parties now proliferating.

Beijing, of course, can help the KMT. It can stop making military threats and, instead, offer friendship and economic incentives. It can accept “respective interpretations”. It can drop its call for early unification. Such changes will make the KMT position tenable again.

But it is unlikely that Beijing will make this shift. Xi Jinping has shown that he is a man in a hurry, wanting to see unification during his time in power. Mao Zedong, by contrast, was willing to wait indefinitely or, as he put it, for 100 years.

So KMT's Chiang may well decide to jettison the 1992 Consensus, knowing that identification with Beijing will continue to be the kiss of death with the Taiwan electorate.

How will mainland China respond? Beijing is on record as saying that its policy is peaceful reunification but it will use force if necessary. During the Ma Ying-jeou presidency, it broached talks on unification but Ma shied away.

If Beijing believes that the end of the KMT as a China-friendly party means that there is no pathway to peaceful unification, then dropping the 1992 Consensus may be the catalyst for the mainland to mentally and physically prepare for the use of force.

But that is by no means Beijing’s only option. It should, instead, widen its horizon beyond Taiwan’s narrowing “pro-China” political spectrum. Indeed, it should improve relations with the ruling Democratic Progressive Party, which clearly represents the majority opinion in Taiwan.

After all, if there are to be peace talks, they can only be held with a government that represents the majority of Taiwan people. This is a reality that Beijing should face.

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RT/CG

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