How to Solve the Taiwan Conundrum

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How to Solve the Taiwan Conundrum

Taiwanese are happy to keep the status quo indefinitely. If China’s leaders can accept that, they might find a solution that keeps everyone happy.


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.”

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.

Ironically, passage of the Anti-Secession Law saw a lowering of cross-strait tensions. Indeed, the name of the law itself presupposes that there is already “one China” from which Taiwan must not secede. The emphasis is thus on not allowing Taiwan to move any further away from China.

Almost immediately after the law’s passage, China invited Lien Chan, chairman of the KMT, to visit the mainland. Lien had been leader of the opposition since the DPP’s Chen Shui-Bian, Taiwan’s first non-KMT President, had been re-elected in 2004.  The KMT leader was received by Hu and the two men signed an agreement which, among other things, called for an end to the state of hostilities and for a peace accord.  After ending the state of hostilities, it said, the two sides should build a framework for the peaceful and steady development of cross-strait ties, including the establishment of a mechanism for developing trust between the two parties’ militaries , to avoid any cross-strait military conflict.

Significantly, the word “reunification” doesn’t appear in the agreement signed in 2005. For the first time, China hadn’t linked a peace agreement with reunification, although in the document both Lien and Hu voice opposition to Taiwanese independence.

The return of the Kuomintang to power with Ma Ying-Jeou’s triumph in the 2008 presidential election dramatically improved the cross-strait atmosphere. In this new environment, Hu delivered a speech on December 31, 2008 to mark the 30th anniversary of the “Message.”  In it, he insisted that even though the mainland and Taiwan hadn’t been united since 1949, there was still “only one China in the world” and the current situation was “merely a state of political antagonism that is a legacy – albeit a lingering one – of the Chinese civil war.” This seemed to suggest that once the political antagonism had ended, reunification would be achieved.

Hu emphasized not peaceful reunification but peaceful development. “Anything conducive to the peaceful development of cross-straits relations must be energetically promoted,” he said. “Anything detrimental must be staunchly opposed.”

Hu’s theme was reflected in the title of his address: “Let us join hands to promote the peaceful development of cross-straits relations and strive with a united resolve for the great rejuvenation of the Chinese Nation.” Compared with the title of Jiang Zemin’s 1995 talk, “Continue to Promote the Reunification of the Motherland,” the difference in emphasis is striking.

In Hu’s mind, it seems, a peace accord represents a step towards ultimate reunification, but a peace agreement and reunification are separate steps that could well be separated by a long period of time.  As for how long that period could be, Mao Zedong said China could wait 100 years; Deng extended that to 1,000 years.

The inescapable reality, which Chinese leaders must face, is that the people of Taiwan want to keep the status quo for the indefinite future. Why shouldn’t that be acceptable? It is, after all, a form of “one country, two systems” whereby the people of the mainland and those in Taiwan live under separate systems.

Moreover, if both sides accept Ma’s proposition that Taiwan won’t seek independence (on condition that China doesn’t compel reunification), there need be no political antagonism between them.  Just like the “1992 consensus,” a peace agreement can be interpreted differently by the two sides. Beijing can claim that there is de facto reunification while Taiwan can emphasize maintenance of the status quo.

Meanwhile, both sides can agree on peaceful development. What could be better?


*The article originally and incorrectly stated Hong Kong's handover as having taken place in 1999. We apologize for the error.