How to Solve the Taiwan Conundrum
Image Credit: Ed Kwon

How to Solve the Taiwan Conundrum



Last month, Taiwanese President Ma Ying-Jeou raised the possibility of signing a peace agreement with mainland China sometime within the next decade.  Beijing responded positively to the idea.

“Ending the state of hostility between the two sides and reaching a peace agreement accords with the overall interests of the Chinese nation and is the common wish of compatriots on both sides of the Strait,” Yang Yi, spokesman for China’s Taiwan Affairs Office, told reporters. “This is a position we have upheld for many years and is the natural outcome of the peaceful development of cross-Strait relations.”

Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.

However, as the opposition Democratic Progressive Party in Taiwan was quick to point out, the key issue remains that of sovereignty. Will Taiwan have to acknowledge that it is part of the People’s Republic of China, or can a peace agreement sidestep this question?

Beijing has long mooted the possibility of a peace agreement, but it’s unclear whether such an accord has to be part of a deal on reunification. China’s policy toward Taiwan has been evolving since 1979, when it made its first overture to the island in a ‘Message to Compatriots in Taiwan,’ issued on New Year’s Day – the day the United States formally broke off diplomatic relations with the government of the Republic of China in Taiwan and established ties with People’s Republic in Beijing. At the time, Taiwan had already been expelled from the United Nations and its future looked bleak.

The ‘Message’ didn’t mention a peace agreement. Indeed, its entire emphasis was on the need for reunification at an early date, and Taiwan’s then leader, President Chiang Ching-Kuo, rejected talks with the communists under his policy of ‘Three No’s’: no contact, no negotiation, and no compromise.

But China wouldn’t take no for an answer. In 1981, it elaborated on its policy with a statement issued in the name of Ye Jianying, Chairman of the National People’s Congress.  For the first time, China mentioned the idea of turning Taiwan into a “special administrative region” similar to Macau or – since 1997* – Hong Kong, with a high degree of autonomy, retaining even its own armed forces. “The central government will not interfere with local affairs on Taiwan,” it promised.

In 1984, Deng Xiaoping used the term ‘one country, two systems’ for the first time, saying that after reunification the mainland would practice socialism, while Taiwan could maintain capitalism.  Again, Taiwan was unresponsive.

On October 12, 1992, Communist Party General Secretary Jiang Zemin called for talks with the Kuomintang (KMT) government of Taiwan “on officially ending the state of hostility between the two sides of the Taiwan Strait and gradually realizing peaceful reunification.”  This suggested two separate phases: ending the state of hostility followed at some point by peaceful reunification. Nonetheless, the two were clearly closely linked.

In January 1995, Jiang expanded on his ideas. He proposed that, first, “negotiations should be held and an agreement reached on officially ending the state of hostility between the two sides.” After that, he said, the two sides could “map out plans for the future development of their relations.” Reunification, it seems, while the eventual goal, wasn’t perceived as the automatic result of a peace accord.

In 2005, days before the enactment of the Anti-Secession Law, in which China openly contemplated using military force if the ‘Taiwanese independence movement’ was successful, President Hu Jintao softened the mainland’s position by announcing that acceptance of the “1992 consensus” rather than strict adherence to a policy of “one China” would be sufficient for resumption of cross-strait talks. The “consensus” he was alluding to was the outcome of informal cross-strait talks in Hong Kong, where both sides supported ‘”China” but differed over what this meant.  Because of the one China term’s ambiguity, it’s acceptable to more people in Taiwan than on the mainland.

Hu also outlined issues to be discussed after ending hostilities, including the establishment of mutual military trust, Taiwan’s need for international space, the political status of the Taiwanese authorities and the framework for peaceful and stable development of cross-straits relations.  He further appeared to confirm that a peace accord was but one step in a process that could be quite prolonged, during which Taiwan would continue to be separate from China.

Sign up for our weekly newsletter
The Diplomat Brief