TAIPEI – During his opening address at the National People’s Congress in March, Chinese President Xi Jinping made it clear that the communist regime will never allow independence for Taiwan, essentially demanding that the incoming Tsai Ing-wen government adhere to the so-called 1992 Consensus on “one China, respective interpretations.” Combined with Beijing’s recent establishment of diplomatic relations with Gambia, a former ally of Taiwan, Beijing is evidently putting the squeeze on Taipei.
Given its stark power disparity with Beijing, Taipei has to walk a tightrope. It must not unnecessarily provoke Beijing. But at the same time it must not allow itself to be at the mercy of Beijing’s tricks. Thus Taipei needs to develop an approach aimed at deterring Beijing from initiating diplomatic offensives or, once they get under way, at least rolling them back.
Revealingly Taipei can take advantage of the 1992 Consensus, which it has struggled to deal with. This means that Taiwan should neither abolish the Republic of China (ROC) constitution nor amend its major clauses. In other words, it should not negate the “one China” principle nor unilaterally give up its de jure territory on the mainland, for which the constitution requires a legislative motion followed by a national referendum. Not only a declaration of independence but also a national referendum will cross Beijing’s red line because they are the two sides of the same coin. Conversely, other measures are all permissible as long as they are limited to symbolic levels without changing the status quo.
It must be reminded that the ROC has existed since 1912 while the People’s Republic of China (PRC) was established in 1949. Hence, the ROC retains legal and historical prominence (academically, “orthodoxy”), involving de jure jurisdiction over mainland China. Beijing cannot deny this de jure claim, which is the basis of Taipei’s adherence to the 1992 Consensus.
Should the communist regime try to establish diplomatic relations with another Taiwan ally, the incoming Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) government can, at the outset, announce its intent to officially designate Taipei as the capital of the ROC, by taking advantage of the de jure jurisdiction as presumed in the 1992 Consensus. It should do so in order to prepare for the next possible move by Beijing. The official seat of the ROC government is still Nanjing. Taipei has merely been its temporary capital since 1949. Changing the seat of government is not in contravention of the 1992 Consensus, given that the ROC constitution does not stipulate the location of its seat. Doing so can demonstrate that Taipei remains combative against Beijing’s diplomatic offensives while equipped with effective counteroffensive tools.
Should Beijing take further diplomatic offensives, Taipei must target Beijing’s Achilles’ heel: weak national integration characterized by latent instability resulting from the anti-Beijing sentiment of minorities in Tibet and Xinjiang. In this light Taipei first should make active use of the Mongolian and Tibetan Affairs Commission, a ministry-level organization of the ROC’s Executive Yuan (Taiwan’s executive branch). It embodies its de jure jurisdiction over Tibet but no longer over Outer Mongolia because the latter is independent as the Republic of Mongolia. The commission is at present an extant legacy of the ROC’s initial polity.
The commission can publish annual official reports on the state of human rights in China, with a focus on Tibet. Such reports, when published in several major languages, would be an effective tool for Taipei’s international public relations operation against Beijing. Doing so does not constitute an intervention in the PRC’s internal affairs since Taipei has de jure jurisdiction across mainland China.
Should Beijing not halt its offensives, Taipei can intensify counteroffensives by presenting more scathing criticism of Beijing’s violations and abuses of human rights in Tibet. Given its de jure jurisdiction across the mainland, it could even designate another government agency to publish similar human right reports about other areas facing minority troubles, including Xinjiang and Inner Mongolia.
As additional countermeasures, if necessary, Taipei can contact the Tibetan government in exile in India more often and openly extend its moral support, particularly because the Tibetan government in exile desires genuine autonomy, not independence. Taipei can also contact individual Uighur human right activists, but not the East Turkistan government in exile per se, which demands independence.
The bottom line is that Taipei has resources to play an international legitimacy game with Beijing. Taipei may be forced to be totally on the defensive or at best control the damage if its international space is reduced by its allies establishing diplomatic ties with Beijing and ending such ties with Taipei. But Taipei in fact has a potent upper hand in the issues of human rights and democracy, which can help reduce Beijing’s prestige and reputation.
Taipei must be prepared for another round of diplomatic offensives by Beijing. But its countermeasures must be reactive, not pre-emptive, and fine-tuned. It can implement such measures sequentially and gradually escalate them if it judges that doing so is effective or necessary. Taipei should be confident that it can deter Beijing with such a solid menu of countermeasures. It is high time that it overcame its longtime under-dog mentality.
Masahiro Matsumura is a professor of international politics at St. Andrew’s University in Osaka and ROC-MOFA Taiwan fellow at the Center for Security Studies of the National Chengchi University Institute of International Relations.
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