Written by Chien-min Chao.
Since President Ma came to power in May 2008, cross-Strait relations have made great strides forward. Over the years, mainland China has gradually formed a three-dimensional strategy towards Taiwan: On the strategic level the “92 consensus” has been reaffirmed as the basis for political trust so that exchanges between the two semi-official organizations, SEF and ARATS, could be resumed; at the medium level, negotiations were started based on the principle of “economics precedes politics and easy precedes difficult”. At the bottom, exchanges were broadened and institutionalized as governments became involved. The new mode of relationship has ushered in for the first time peace in the region with millions of people reaping the fruits.
As President Ma was gearing up for reelection in January 2012, Beijing seemed to want to expedite relations by “deepening political trust” and changes were made accordingly. First, China wanted to supplement the ambiguous “92 consensus” with a clearer “one China framework” and “both sides belong to China” (tongshu yizhong). Second, Beijing seemed to want to set the scene for political talks with the more pragmatic term “economics before politics” being amended to a more balanced “economics and politics are intermingled”. Terms with more political connotations such as “relations are entering into deep water”, “one China framework” and “peace and stability framework” were often mentioned. In the meantime, talks on cultural and educational agreements were urged. Third, on the exchange side, focus was shifted to the grass-roots level with people living in the central and southern parts of Taiwan especially those with lower income being targeted.
After Xi Jinping became the supreme leader in November 2012, China’s policies have made another turn. Although Xi inherits the political stance from Hu Jintao, and terms like “both sides belong to the same China” and “strive to form common acknowledgement over one China” are still buzz words, the urge for political talks, though heard in official gatherings, seems to have lost urgency. China seems to be more focused on what is already in the pipeline. The follow-up negotiations of the ECFA, the cross-Strait Service Trade Agreement and the Trade on Goods Agreement, and the establishment of offices by the SEF and the ARATS, seem to have taken priority. Simply put, China’s new policies can be summarized as consolidating the top (political trust), taking it lightly in the middle (creating the right ambiance for political talks) and deepening at the bottom (pragmatic negotiations).
Before the KMT returned to power in 2008 China focused its policies on making the “92 consensus” the cornerstone of political trust between the two sides. Former CCP leader Hu Jintao made this clear in his “four points” in March 2005. The trouble in cross-Strait relations, according to Hu, lay in “the Taiwan authorities refusing one China principle and not recognizing ‘the 92 consensus’ as the embodiment of one China principle”. To Beijing the “92 consensus” was synonymous with “one China”. The two sides finally got a break on the issue when KMT honorary chairman Lien Chan made a historic “ice-breaking” visit to Beijing in April 2005, paving the way for the reconciliation opened up by Ma and Hu later on.
However, mainland China seemed to hold greater expectations after Ma succeeded in securing a second term. The emphasis shifted to “deepening and consolidating the one China principle”, and “consolidating, enhancing, and deepening” mutual political trust. Beijing wanted to add more clarity to the murky “92 consensus,” the original “foundation of mutual political trust”, by demanding acknowledgment that “the two sides belong to the same China” and the “one China framework”. Wang Yi, former Director of the Taiwan Affairs Office, spelled out the policy in unambiguous terms in Houston in April 2012. Wang stressed that by “consolidating political foundations”, Beijing meant to “maintain 92 consensus” and “refuse Taiwan independence by any means”. However, to increase mutual political trust means to “acknowledge that the two sides belong to one China (rentong liangan tongshu yizhong)” and to “maintain one China framework (weihu yizhong kuangjia)” so that “a more clear common acknowledgement (gongtong rentong) and consistent stand (yizhi lichang) can be forged.” In an interview at the Boao Forum before heading to Houston, Wang Yi hinted that to push further economic cooperation, the two sides needed to “further maintain, consolidate and ceaselessly deepen mutual political trust.” Actually, Wang divulged his view at the 10th Conference on cross-Strait Relations on March 15 2012, by saying that on the matter of maintaining the “one China framework” the two sides should “forge a more clear common acknowledgement and consistent stand” and “erect an understanding of one family from across the Taiwan Strait.”
Hu Jintao himself preached the same mantra in March 2012, while meeting with the KMT’s honorary chairman Wu Poh-hsiung:
To enhance mutual political trust [the two sides should] insist on “92 consensus” and oppose Taiwan independence resolutely. For this, [the two sides] should take concrete measures and work harder. Although the two sides are yet to be unified, Chinese territories and sovereignty are not divided and the fact that both mainland and Taiwan belong to one China remains unchanged. Reaffirming this fact is in line with our current regulations and should be within reach by either side. To maintain one China framework would help enhancing mutual political trust and stabilizing the development.
In the meeting Hu reiterated the stand of “belonging to the same China” he made in his “eight points” proposal in 2008. In a speech to the KMT/CCP Economic and Culture Forum held in the Chinese city of Harbin in July 2012, Jia Qinglin, former chairman of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, further clarified the policy:
to enhance political trust is to maintain and consolidate the one China framework and the core of one China framework is that Taiwan and the mainland belong to the same country (Taiwan yu dalu dongshu yige guojia). Cross-Strait relations are not state-to-state relations. The two sides should reaffirm that fact and form a common acknowledgement based on current regulations so that one China framework can be reassured, maintained and consolidated. On this basis the two sides should … proactively explore a new type of special political relations before unification and gradually opening up ways for the resolution of deep-rooted issues that are confronting us.
“One China across the Strait” (liangan yizhong) seemed to have emerged as the main focus in China’s quest for “deepening political trust”. This policy was written into the CCP’s political report at the 18th Party Congress held in October 2012: “The two sides should adhere resolutely to the common grounds of opposing ‘Taiwan independence’ and insisting on the ‘92 consensus’, enhance common acknowledgement of one China framework and seek to maximize their commonalities and save differences on that basis.”
Built on the successes of previous policies the new Chinese leadership under Xi Jinping seems to have crafted a path of its own. The new policy is to maintain the political stands painstakingly forged between the two sides by Ma and Hu and concentrate on things on the ground. While meeting with Wu Poh-hsiung in June 2013, Xi parroted the same tone in saying that “although not unified the two sides belong to the same China…the two parties should insist on the stand of one China, and maintain the one China framework together…the core of enhancing mutual trust is to consolidate and maintain one China principle so that a clear common acknowledgement can be formed.” What is different is that China ceases pushing for political talks and instead puts more emphasis on realizing what is already on the agenda.
There are three possible reasons for the change. First, on the premise that one China is meant as the ROC, Taiwan has displayed flexibility on the matter of political principle, effectively reducing Beijing’s apprehension. In his trip to Beijing in February, 2012, Lien Chan stated that “both legal systems practice one China principle. Taiwan is part of China just as mainland is also part of China and on that basis the cross-Strait relations under one China framework are given birth.” A spokesman from the TAO expressed agreement with “Lien Chan’s insistence, based on the 92 consensus, on seeking the common grounds while saving the differences of the one China framework.” Wu Poh-hsiung expressed a similar stand while meeting with Xi Jinping in June, 2013, by saying “laws (falu) and regimes (tizhi) of both sides advocate the one China principle and cross-Strait relations are defined by a one China framework, not state-to-state relations.” In the meeting Wu reiterated the KMT’s stance of opposing Taiwan independence and for the first time, on behalf of the KMT, echoed the proposition of a “one China framework”. Second, since reelection President Ma and his cabinet have suffered a low support rate. The fact that the cross-Strait Service Agreement is still mired in controversy in the Legislative Yuan has added urgency to the Chinese side. Third, current issues that are in talks including the ECFA followed-up agreements and the setting up of the representative offices are highly critical with the prospects of reshaping future relations. It is thus a better strategy to concentrate on what is in sight instead of fighting for what is out of sight.
Professor Chien-min Chao is a distinguished Chair Professor at the Graduate Institute for Sun Yat-sen Thought and Mainland China Studies at the Chinese Culture University in Taiwan.