As Taiwan’s Mainland Affairs Council Minister Wang Yu-chi was wrapping up his four-day official visit to China on February 14, it was clear that the event, groundbreaking though it may have been, delivered very little in terms of concrete results — except one thing: a propaganda coup for Beijing.
Wang, a Cabinet minister in the Kuomintang (KMT) administration of President Ma Ying-jeou, was the first Taiwanese official to visit China in an official capacity since 1949, when Chinese Communist Party (CCP) successes in the Civil War forced the KMT to flee to Taiwan. Prior to Wang’s visit, relations between the two sides of the Taiwan Strait had been limited to exchanges between Taiwan’s Straits Exchange Foundation (SEF) and China’s Association for Relations Across the Taiwan Strait (ARATS), two semi-official bodies created to handle dialogue.
No sooner had Wang landed in Nanjing for a series of meetings than international media and China’s propaganda arm hailed the breakthrough as something of great significance. CNN, which has rather been inattentive when it comes to coverage of Taiwan, referred to the visit as “peace talks” — which it most certainly was not — while former U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Kurt Campbell, who knows a lot more about this part of the world, characterized them as a “quite significant” turn of events.
In reality, the fanfare was much ado about, well, not much. Undoubtedly, there is some significance to the official exchanges and to Wang’s getting away with referring to Taiwan under its official title, the Republic of China (ROC), while visiting the Sun Yat-sen Mausoleum in Nanjing. But throughout the visit, Chinese officials consistently went out of their way to “correct” Wang on Taiwan’s designation by framing it as the “Taiwan area,” with the implicit notion that Taiwan is part of China, as per official PRC policy. Furthermore, as Tsai Ing-wen, a former chairperson of Taiwan’s Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), observed in a press release on the day of Wang’s return to Taiwan, the official visit will only be meaningful — and ultimately beneficial to Taiwan — if exchanges become systematically official and involve other government agencies.
There is noting wrong with liberalizing ties across the Taiwan Strait, and efforts to facilitate government-to-government relations should be encouraged. However, we must never lose sight of the fact that the situation in the Strait is not a conventional one, in that one side, China, does not recognize the existence of its counterpart as a sovereign state. In fact, Beijing perseveres in its efforts to swallow Taiwan, which it regards as a renegade province awaiting “reunification.” In light of this, and absent any signals that could indicate a change of heart within the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), we must regard Beijing’s willingness to allow a Taiwanese government official to visit China with skepticism and awareness that ulterior motives might be involved.
As we assess the success of Wang’s visit (which is likely to be followed by a reciprocal visit to Taiwan by China’s Taiwan Affairs Office head Zhang Zhijun sometime within the first half of this year), it becomes clear that Beijing didn’t give, or risk, much. At most, it gave a much-needed boost domestically to the struggling Ma administration ahead of important year-end municipal elections and two years before the next presidential elections. It gave a semblance of official relations, without actually modifying its “one China” policy and ultimate “reunification” goal, which remains a core principle of the CCP.
The return on that investment, on the other hand, may have been much greater. Besides giving ammunition to the KMT, its preferred partner in negotiations, Wang’s official visit could prove extremely useful as a propaganda tool overseas — and initial foreign reactions seem to support this scenario. By depicting the visit as a political breakthrough and encouraging international media to refer to it as “peace talks” and yet another sign that relations in the Strait are at their best in the past 60 years, Beijing will be in a better position to pressure Washington on the matter of U.S. arms sales and security guarantees to Taiwan. After all, under the Taiwan Relations Act (TRA), which is celebrating its 35th anniversary this year, the scope of U.S. defense assistance to the island is predicated on the level of threat from China. If Beijing succeeds in convincing U.S. officials that peace talks have been initiated, with both governments acting as willing participants, we can expect calls for the cessation of U.S. arms sales to Taiwan — long seen as detrimental to U.S.-China relations — to turn into a louder chorus.
But the reality is, this is all propaganda. While tensions in the Taiwan Strait have undeniably diminished in recent years, the underlying conflict, which stems from irreconcilable contradictions in the two political systems and ways of life, remains and will likely become starker over the next decade. Opinion polls in Taiwan have consistently shown a preference for the “status quo” (de facto independence), or independence, with very little support for unification. Simultaneously, Taiwanese have shown themselves amenable to closer relations — normalized relations — with China. In other words, they want Taiwan, or the ROC, to be treated as an equal and sovereign entity.
Despite its rhetoric depicting Taiwanese “separatists” as a small minority, the CCP is actually aware that opposition to unification — at least under the terms of a “one country, two systems” deal, which is the best that Beijing has offered to date — is strong and growing. Already, there has been growing pressure on the Ma administration, which we can speculate stems from an impatient Xi Jinping government that wants to resolve the Taiwan “question” once and for all so that China can turn to bigger things. This pressure, in turn, has exacerbated tensions within Taiwan, where the mood remains opposed to political talks with Beijing. The number of protests across the island in 2013 was unprecedented in recent years, as activists became aware that social tensions were indirectly, and sometimes directly, related to Ma’s China policies, such as the proposed Cross-Strait Services Trade Agreement. While the protests have been relatively peaceful, some individuals have turned to more extreme measures, setting precedents for future acts of resistance. In the early hours of January 25, a 41-year old man crashed a 35-tonne truck into the Presidential Office. In an effort to downplay the significance of the incident and depoliticize the act, the government depicted Chang Ter-cheng as a disgruntled husband with a history of violence. In reality, the former Air Force officer made it very clear in a letter to the media that his actions were motivated by discontent with various government policies and the growing gap between the haves and the have-nots, which, as in Hong Kong since Retrocession, is being exacerbated by growing economic exchanges with China.
What is clear, therefore, is that despite the claims — welcome in many world capitals — that the Taiwan Strait is no longer a source of potential conflict, the reality is far more complex, and the risks of things taking a turn for the worse at some point in the not-too-distant future are much higher than we’d think. How Beijing will react when it realizes that Taiwan’s 23 million people will not give it what it wants is uncertain, but the power imbalance in the Strait will make a PLA intervention increasingly appealing to decision makers in Beijing.
By convincing the world that peace is at hand in the Taiwan Strait, that the Civil War has finally come to an end, with both sides embracing a political resolution, Beijing could succeed in pushing Washington to end arms sales to Taiwan, which would further compound the military imbalance in the Strait, and make capitulation all but inevitable.
Do not let the headlines deceive you: The Wang visit was not goodwill on Beijing’s part. It was, first and foremost, a propaganda exercise.