Since the independence-leaning Democratic Progressive Party’s Tsai Ing-wen became president of Taiwan last year, China has not only rejected dialogue with the DPP government but has applied various forms of political and diplomatic pressure on Taipei. Tsai’s overwhelming victory in the 2016 election ended pro-China Kuomintang President Ma Ying-jeou’s eight-year rule, and a majority of Taiwanese do not want unification. Beijing should respect the will of Taiwan’s voters and reopen cross-strait dialogue to build a trusting relationship with Taipei that will contribute to the region’s stability.
Cross-strait relations have been strained since Tsai was inaugurated in May 2016. Her predecessor pushed the policy of strengthening Taiwan’s relations with China on the basis of a “1992 Consensus” between China and Taiwan, which upholds the “One-China” principle — although it leaves room for different interpretations by Beijing and Taipei. China can interpret it as meaning the People’s Republic of China and Taiwan as referring to the Republic of China. Tsai rejects Beijing’s demand that she accept the consensus.
China has closed channels of dialogue with Taiwan and significantly curbed the number of its citizens visiting the island. Based on its position that Taiwan is part of China, Beijing refuses to accept it as a state party to international organizations and it has maneuvered to prevent Taiwan from participating in international organizations. Recently it blocked an invitation for Taiwan to take part in the annual assembly of the World Health Organization in Geneva this past May. China’s action was regrettable because it could negatively affect Taiwan’s efforts to maintain public health and participate in global efforts to combat infectious diseases.
Beijing is also using its growing international economic clout to push countries to break diplomatic ties with Taiwan and switch their recognition to China. It succeeded in establishing diplomatic ties with Sao Tome and Principe last December and with Panama in June. As a result, only 20 countries now hold diplomatic relations with Taiwan.
In an apparent effort to keep the Tsai government and pro-independence elements in Hong Kong in check, Chinese President Xi Jinping said in his Aug. 1 speech marking the 90th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Liberation Army that China “will never allow any people, organization or political party to split any part of Chinese territory out of the country at any time.” In response, DPP spokesman Wang Min-sheng said, “Any intimidation will only drive Taiwan away and is detrimental to the peaceful development of cross-strait relations.” China has to admit that the Republic of China exists and Taiwan’s 23 million people will decide its own future in a democratic process, the spokesman said.
In late July, Zhou Zhihuai, former director of the Institute of Taiwan Studies with the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, called for a unification timetable at a symposium on cross-strait relations held in Taiyuan, China. He said the issue cannot be avoided since Xi’s idea of “great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation” and “complete reunification of the motherland” cannot be separated.
However, China should not dismiss the will of the Taiwanese people as it considers its policy on cross-strait relations. A June opinion poll in Taiwan found that 80 percent of the respondents regard themselves as Taiwanese and just 13 percent saw themselves as Chinese. As for the unification issue, 58 percent called for maintaining the status quo, 24 percent the island’s independence and only 12 percent unification.
China also should realize that the DPP effectively shelved its goal of achieving Taiwan’s independence when it adopted a resolution in May 1999 on the island’s future, which said that a vote of all residents would be required if sovereignty over Taiwan is to be changed, even though the independence clause remains in the party’s platform. The DPP should not necessarily be deemed as a party uncompromisingly seeking Taiwan’s independence, and China should not refuse to hold dialogue with the DPP-led Taiwan on that basis.
For its part, Japan should try to deepen relations with Taiwan and respect its people’s will over cross-strait matters within the bounds of its diplomatic and legal restrictions. But it should never use its ties with Taiwan as a diplomatic card in its relations with China, as doing so would not necessarily serve the interests of Taiwan.