The thaw in cross-Strait relations during Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou’s first term was unprecedented – but the honeymoon period may soon be over.
The rapid expansion of ties between the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) and Chinese Communist Party (CCP) governments were established through seven rounds of bilateral talks, 16 agreements, and one “consensus” on cross-Strait investments. Concomitantly, people-to-people exchanges have increased exponentially as the two sides negotiate terms of engagement. But while the KMT and CCP agree upon the need to institutionalize cross-Strait ties on the basis of the so-called “1992 Consensus,” other sensitive political issues were shelved in the interim. Now, despite the bilateral public displays of camaraderie by political leaders, who tout the positive-positive gains of engagement, the deeply rooted political distrust that Presidents Ma and Hu Jintao brushed aside during the past four years is quickly coming to the fore.
Only months after Ma’s re-election, and as a heated power struggle plays out in Zhongnanhai prior to the 18th Party Congress, the emergence of divergent expectations for cross-Strait engagement may prove challenging to manage. Beijing deliberately toned down calls for political dialogue during the Taiwan election season, but now appears to be increasing pressure on the Ma administration to enter into political negotiations. This issue was thrown into sharp relief by the Ma administration’s rebuke of Beijing’s latest call for the establishment of a Pingtan Cross-Strait Experimental Region project.
The CCP first raised this idea of a jointly developed zone during a party meeting in Fujian Province in 2003. The plan evolved over the years as high-level Chinese officials – including Hu and Premier Wen Jiabao – expressed their support for and intention to develop the Pingtan area into a showcase for its Taiwan policy. According to Beijing’s latest proposal, both governments would administer the region under a “five joint” model: joint planning, joint development, joint establishment, joint management, and joint benefactor.
In response, Mainland Affairs Council spokesman Liu Te-shun stated that China inserted “too much of a political overtone into the Pingtan project, which in fact was designed in accordance with its “12th five-year plan” that handles cross-Strait relationships under the principle of the “one country, two systems” formula.”
The Ma administration’s negative reaction to the proposed Pingtan project suggests that it is increasingly concerned over the pace and expanding scope of cross-Strait engagement. Following his re-election this January, Ma had stated that “with mainland relations, we will work on the economy first and politics later, work on the easier tasks first and the more difficult ones later.” He added: “There is no rush to open up political dialogue. It’s not a looming issue.” There’s speculation that this method allows Taipei to stretch out the negotiation process on political issues as long as possible.
However, China appears increasingly impatient with the Ma administration as Beijing ratchets up pressure on Taipei to enter into political talks. Indeed, China’s policy and strategy toward Taiwan are guided by the “six points” outlined by Hu in 2009, during a speech commemorating the 30th anniversary of the Message to Compatriots in Taiwan. These points include: 1) firm adherence to the “one China” principle; 2) strengthening commercial ties, including negotiating an economic cooperation agreement; 3) promoting personnel exchanges; 4) stressing common cultural links between the two sides; 5) allowing Taiwan’s “reasonable” participation in global organizations and 6) negotiating a peace agreement.
With the election now over, Beijing may be looking to hold the administration to some of its campaign promises, particularly its interest in a potential peace agreement.
Although the KMT and CCP can agree on the virtues of closer engagement, the attendant expectations attached to these interactions clearly diverge. Now that Ma has won a second term, the Chinese are likely to begin their push for a peace treaty. Leaders in Beijing undoubtedly see the Pingtan experimental project as a stepping stone toward more political concessions down the road. The CCP has assiduously attempted to cultivate closer relationships with Taiwanese elites across the political spectrum, while simultaneously using high-level trade delegations to win over groups traditionally opposed to closer relations with China, particularly those in southern Taiwan. By using economic levers to appeal to voters typically aligned with the opposition Democratic Progressive Party, the CCP clearly hopes that it can continue to draw Taiwan into China’s economic – and eventually political – orbit. Thus, despite the fact that the Ma administration may feel uncomfortable with engaging in overt political negotiations, the CCP will likely continue to use a combination of economic sticks and carrots to bring Taiwanese leaders to the table.
The question remains, how can the KMT improve the cross-Strait relationship while protecting Taiwanese national sovereignty?
During the past four years, political leaders on both sides of the Strait have attempted to drum up public support for their respective initiatives, leading to inflated expectations regarding potential deliverables of cross-Strait engagement. Beijing's most recent push for the Pingtan project has brought political issues back to the forefront of negotiations. The Ma administration must make a tactical decision regarding whether to continue its current policy of putting “economics ahead of politics” or place political and economic negotiation on parallel tracks. Increasing pressure from Beijing will likely prompt Taipei to call for additional U.S. support to buttress its negotiating position.
During the annual KMT and CCP Cross-Taiwan Strait Economic and Cultural Forum, the KMT has put forward the concept of interpreting the cross-Strait region as “one country, two areas,” in accordance with the so-called “1992 Consensus” and the Republic of China constitution. Although the KMT appears to believe that this model can further facilitate dialogue, it may in fact have the unintended effect of marginalizing the ROC and undermining Taiwan’s concurrent efforts to protect its sovereignty and gain greater international breathing space. Such a negotiating tool can backfire for the KMT, leaving it with less room for political maneuver in the future.
In light of the probability for increased tensions in the Taiwan Strait, it would behoove Taipei and Beijing to tread carefully when managing expectations regarding the deliverables of cross-Strait engagement. Unmanaged expectations could lead either or both parties to miscalculate intentions and create resentment. For Washington, refusal to address the widening sovereignty gap in the Taiwan Strait appears likely to become a growing source of instability as Beijing increases pressure on Taipei. While Washington should continue to welcome peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait, it must also provide Taipei with the moral and material support it needs to negotiate from a position of strength rather than weakness.
L.C. Russell Hsiao is a senior research fellow at the Project 2049 Institute in Washington. Julia Famularo is a research affiliate at the Project 2049 Institute and a doctoral candidate in modern East Asian political history at Georgetown University.