HONG KONG – Taiwan’s president, Tsai Ing-wen, refused to bow to Beijing’s pressure when she delivered her first National Day speech Monday, but she called on China to value the positive results of cross-strait exchanges over the past 20 years and called for talks as soon as possible.
Evidently responding to mainland China’s expressed desire for step-by-step progress toward a “final resolution” of political differences, Tsai called on Beijing “to face up to the reality that the Republic of China exists.” Leaders on both sides, she said, “should jointly display wisdom and flexibility and together bring a divided present toward a win-win future.”
Most of the speech was devoted to domestic issues, such as housing, the predicament of young people, providing a life of dignity for the elderly, transforming the economy and judicial reform.
But it was what she had to say about relations with mainland China that the rest of the world was interested in. And there she was crystal clear: She was not about to change the position she took when she was sworn into office, which was to maintain the status quo. “Not a single sentence from my inaugural address on May 20 has ever changed,” she said Monday.
China issued a statement after her inaugural address saying that she “did not clearly acknowledge the 1992 Consensus or its core connotation” — namely, “one China” — and so it was “an incomplete test.” What China wants is for her to acknowledge that Taiwan and the mainland both belong to “one China.” Under the 1992 Consensus, both sides agreed that there was one China but disagreed on its interpretation.
Beijing has suspended official and semi-official talks with Taipei.
It has also moved to squeeze Taiwan’s international space. Last month, Taiwan was barred from a meeting of the International Civil Aviation Organization, a U.N. agency. Three years ago, when the more pro-China Ma Ying-jeou was president, Taiwan was allowed to take part for the first time in more than 40 years.
Tsai, whose political party seeks the independence of Taiwan, has promised to maintain the status quo, but she has refrained from using the term 1992 Consensus required by Beijing.
But, it seems, Taiwan and mainland China evidently have different definitions of the status quo.
To Tsai, maintaining the status quo means not declaring independence but continuing the policies that existed during the Ma presidency. To Beijing, however, the status quo means a process of ever improving cross-strait relations which will over time lead to the political union of Taiwan and the mainland. If relations stop improving, in Beijing’s mind, the status quo has changed.
What Beijing opposes is the indefinite prolongation of the cross-straits relationship in its present form, where Taiwan is independent.
Ever since the establishment of the People’s Republic of China in 1949 by the Chinese Communist Party, the takeover of Taiwan has been one of its highest priorities. Mao Zedong called for the “liberation” of Taiwan.
His successor, Deng Xiaoping, came up with the concept of “one country, two systems” for peaceful unification with Taiwan, and decided to try it out first in Hong Kong.
Jiang Zemin, the next leader, was eager to set a deadline for resolution of the issue, but failed. Under Hu Jintao, China passed the Anti-Secession Law in 2005, which gave Beijing the right to use force against Taiwan if “possibilities for a peaceful reunification should be completely exhausted.”
Even though Ma was considered China-friendly, he balked at the holding of political talks, preferring to discuss economic issues. But now, it seems, Beijing feels that it is time to tackle political issues, specifically, the issue of Taiwan’s unification with the mainland.
Under Xi Jinping, China has grown more powerful than it has ever been. He is not shy about flexing, or even using, China’s muscles. In 2013, Xi indicated that his patience was wearing thin by telling a representative of President Ma: “The issue of political disagreements that exist between the two sides must reach a final resolution, step by step, and these issues cannot be passed on from generation to generation.”
That is why Beijing is putting pressure on Tsai to accept the “one China” principle. In Beijing’s mind, once Taiwan agrees that it is part of China, then it is only logical for there to be talks on unification. And if Taiwan doesn’t agree to peaceful unification, Beijing will “employ non-peaceful means” as provided for by the Anti-Secession Law.
Tsai clearly suspects that this is Xi’s game plan. She is wise not to play along.
Veteran journalist Frank Ching writes on China, Taiwan and Hong Kong.