Cross-Strait Relations After the Sunflower Movement
Image Credit: Stimson Center

Cross-Strait Relations After the Sunflower Movement

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The Diplomat’s Kelwin Choi recently sat down with Alan D. Romberg, distinguished fellow and the director of the East Asia program at the Stimson Center in Washington, DC, to discuss cross-Strait relations, the Trans-Pacific Partnership and the East China Sea.

What is the significance of Mainland Affairs Council Minister Wang Yu-chi and Head of the Taiwan Affairs Office Zhang Zhijun’s “historic” meeting in Taiwan last month?

I think that the main importance of Zhang Zhijun’s visit to Taiwan is that it took place. This symbolized another step forward in cross-Strait links.

The two sides had clearly agreed beforehand that, as with Wang Yu-chi’s visit to the mainland, there would not be any announcements regarding agreements. So that was no surprise. There was, however, word that progress was made on a number of issues. For example, although it had been known for quite a while that the issue of “humanitarian visits” by personnel in the Straits Exchange Foundation (SEF) and Association for Relations Across the Taiwan Straits (ARATs) office to be established on each side had been resolved, that became a matter of formal record during Zhang’s visit. At the same time, the reciprocal establishment of those offices was not completed and remains pending business, a demonstration of how difficult it is to make progress even on what seems like a matter of pretty obvious benefit to both sides.

How has the Sunflower Movement impacted cross-Strait relations and China’s approach to the island?

Whether Zhang really learned much about “grass roots” thinking is not known, but the fact that this became a major theme of the visit–reviving a theme from 2011-2012–shows that the Sunflower Movement, and the apparent high level of public support for it in Taiwan, did catch Beijing’s attention.

Related to this, the mainland surely was interested in understanding the implications of the trade and other issues that have gotten caught up in the political controversy between the KMT and DPP in the legislature. What both governments had viewed as a mutually beneficial agreement on trade in services when it was signed in 2013, and hence a pact able to be implemented with relative dispatch, has turned out to be a highly controversial matter within Taiwan. This has not only been due to the Sunflower Movement, of course, but that movement highlighted the domestic Taiwan economic and political issues involved and a nagging sense of concern among many people in Taiwan about the risks of becoming overly dependent on the mainland.

While the Sunflower Movement initially led to the postponement of Zhang’s trip from April, the political stalemate in the legislature also spurred carrying out the visit sooner rather than later. That is to say, if the postponement had been allowed to drag on further, there was a significant risk that it would have had to be postponed indefinitely because of concern that it would become enmeshed in Taiwan’s elections between now and 2016.

Zhang sought to use the trip both to demonstrate he was “listening” to the views of all segments of Taiwanese society and to reassure people in Taiwan of the mainland’s goodwill. In the process, he made efforts to refocus attention away from the concerns raised by mainland speeches and articles in recent months about how “peaceful development” was a direct path to “peaceful reunification.” Instead, he highlighted the mutual benefits to be derived from peaceful development and the broader economic, cultural and other similar non-political relations. While the ultimate goal of reunification obviously has not been abandoned, nor has the goal of political dialogue, due to the Sunflower Movement and to the ongoing stalemate in the legislature, Beijing has apparently realized more clearly than before that the situation in Taiwan was not ripe for movement in that direction.

Do you anticipate Xi Jinping leaving a distinct mark on China’s Taiwan policy or will we more see a continuation of Beijing’s policies under Hu Jintao?

It would be surprising if over Xi Jinping’s anticipated ten-year tenure there were not some meaningful developments in Beijing’s policies toward Taiwan. One had a sense that somewhat greater emphasis on political dialogue and Taiwan’s role in the rejuvenation of China last year reflected Xi’s hope to instill new momentum in cross-Strait relations.

If one looks carefully at the evolution of Xi’s statements to Wu Poh-Hsiung last summer, Vincent Siew in October, Lien Chan in February and James Soong in May, it seems that there was an effort in the second part of 2013 to move things along, albeit without any fundamental shift in direction from the course set out by Hu Jintao. But the impact of developments with the student movement is seen in Xi’s statements in 2014, and the growing emphasis on reaching out to all sectors of Taiwan society to learn their views and factor in their needs. The net effect is that, at least for now, the patience advocated by Hu Jintao will continue to guide mainland policy. In other words, it is pretty clear that the pace of movement in the direction of political issues cannot be accelerated at this point, and there is no obvious reason why Xi would try to force the issue in the face of this reality.

Moreover, Beijing is obviously wrestling with the issue of how to deal with the opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), which might not only gain positions in the local elections this November, but that could win back the presidency in 2016. How the mainland will position itself vis-à-vis the presidential contest will depend importantly on how the DPP adjusts its cross-Strait policy (or not), and Beijing will make efforts between now and then to encourage the DPP to take positions that are not at odds with the PRC’s insistence on rejecting Taiwan independence and embracing a “one China” framework.

An interesting twist on all of this may have been revealed in recent comments of Politburo Standing Committee member and chairman of the National Committee of the Chinese People’s Consultative Conference, Yu Zhengsheng. Xi and other Prc leaders, including Yu, have reiterated on numerous occasions that they are willing to give Taiwan preferential treatment in terms of access to the PRC market. That said, in his meeting with a delegation from Taiwan’s general chamber of commerce, Yu indicated that the mainland would not wait for the legislature to complete its ratification of the cross-Strait services trade agreement (and presumably completion of a commodities agreement) before proceeding with other bilateral trade agreements. The “other” agreement that is most immediately at issue is that under negotiation between China and South Korea (ROK). Many in Taiwan have warned that completion of the PRC-ROK agreement before implementing the cross-Strait agreement could have a devastating effect on Taiwan’s market share on the mainland since Taiwan and the ROK compete in so many areas.

During his recent visit to Seoul, PRC President Xi and Korean President Park Geun-hye agreed to try to expedite completion of a bilateral trade accord, hopefully to conclude it by the end of this year. If they succeed, given the complex situation in Taiwan, the PRC-ROK agreement could well come into effect before the cross-Strait agreement is ratified. Whether Yu meant to put pressure on Taiwan through his comment or not–and my guess is that he did–all political forces in Taiwan will need to come to grips with this looming possibility.

There has recently been a great deal of controversy over how the mainland is handling the “one country, two systems” policy in Hong Kong. Do you think how the issues surrounding Hong Kong’s political autonomy play out will impact potential reunification with Taiwan? If so, how?

It is useful to recall that the “one country, two systems” policy was initially conceived by Deng Xiaoping for cross-Strait relations. When it wasn’t working with Taiwan, Beijing then applied it to Hong Kong and Macau.

The fact is that “one country, two systems” has never had widespread appeal in Taiwan. For many people, of course, the problem is not “two systems” but “one country.” But the model has never held much attraction even for those in Taiwan who are open to contemplating unification at some point. Moreover, the recent white paper on Hong Kong, and the way Beijing has reacted to political pressures in Hong Kong to allow a “high degree of autonomy” under the basic law have only reinforced the unattractiveness of the model for Taiwan. Beijing’s forceful reiteration that Hong Kong enjoys neither “full autonomy” nor “any residual power” simply makes Taiwan’s unification opponents’ point for them.

President Ma Ying-Jeou and the current Taiwanese administration has expressed a strong interest in joining regional trade pacts including the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). What is China’s view on this? Does it distinguish between political and economic multilateral international agreements?

On one level, Beijing officials express understanding with Taiwan’s emphasis on negotiating other bilateral and regional trade pacts. They see the economic need. In terms of bilateral deals, Beijing has taken a case-by-case approach, seeking to make sure that any bilateral deals do not either reflect an attempt by Taiwan to introduce sovereignty considerations or a position on the part of Taiwan’s trading partner that could be interpreted as accepting “one China, one Taiwan” or “two Chinas.”

On regional agreements, Beijing has expressed a willingness to work “jointly” with Taiwan to determine how best they could together facilitate Taiwan’s participation in broader arrangements. For Beijing, this seems to have at least three components to it. First, it must involve consultation and coordination with Beijing. Second, the result in the end cannot be that Taiwan is somehow a participant of equal political standing with the state participants. And third, the cross-Strait trade and economic agenda must be addressed first, and only then can the regional agenda be taken on.

Precisely what “joint” means to Beijing is unclear, and whether it could cause a problem if Beijing insists on an arrangement that strongly implies Taipei’s participation is as a subordinate to Beijing. On the other hand, both Vincent Siew and Mainland Affairs Council Minister Wang Yu-Chi have also used the term, so presumably they have in mind something that would be ok with Taipei.

President Ma recently addressed the issue, and the way he expressed it was that Beijing was willing to consider Taiwan’s regional participation “in line with the ECFA framework.”

How this will work out in the end remains to be seen, including whether any arrangements reached by the Ma administration (assuming it is still in office by the time any of this takes place) pass muster with the public.

We recently featured a piece that pointed out that one of Japan’s only positive relationships in Northeast Asia is with Taiwan. Why do you think Taiwan and Japan get along so well and do you see any role for Taiwan in helping mediate the ongoing Sino-Japanese dispute as Ma seems to envision with his East China Sea Peace Initiative?

Despite the continuing difference over sovereignty over the Diaoyu/Senkakus Islands, Taipei and Tokyo have avoided a major clash of the sort that we have seen between Beijing and Tokyo. I think that reflects the overall better state of relations between Taiwan and Japan and the fact that the one very active issue involving the islands, fishing rights, was resolved in accordance with president Ma Ying-Jeou’s East China Sea peace initiative in April 2013. A key element was that, while both sides preserved their positions on the sovereignty dispute, they set that aside and came to terms on sharing fisheries resources.

Unfortunately, I do not see a role either for Taiwan as a mediator or for his East China Sea peace initiative as a model for resolving the Diaoyu/Senkakus between Beijing and Tokyo. Certainly a mediation role would be out of the question from the PRC perspective as Taiwan, in Beijing’s view, should be totally on the “Chinese” side. And while the principles Ma espoused in his peace initiative could be very useful if the mainland wanted to employ them, it seems to me that the highly politicized nature of the dispute between Beijing and Tokyo is not susceptible to resolution through Ma’s concept at this point.

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