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China Is Undermining Its Own Taiwan Strategy

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China Power

China Is Undermining Its Own Taiwan Strategy

Beijing should return to and overhaul, its charm offensive policy toward Taiwan.

China Is Undermining Its Own Taiwan Strategy
Credit: Flickr/ Yohmi

As tensions over North Korea rise, another flashpoint of East Asia, the issue of Taiwan, seems to have been relegated to the back burner. Nonetheless, mainland China has never stopped squeezing the self-ruled island at home and aboard.

Early this year, Xinhua, the state mouthpiece of the Communist Party of China, broke years of convention by altering the title of Taiwan’s national sports teams from “Chinese Taipei” to “China Taipei.” This change gained more attention when the predominant state television broadcaster China Central Television and all the other state-owned media followed suit from April 11 in their reports about the 2017 Asian Table Tennis Championships.

The designation of Chinese Taipei is the hard-fought result of decades of negotiations and is officially accepted by both sides of the Strait. The use of this designation is stipulated both in a protocol signed in 1981 between Taiwan and the International Olympic Committee and an agreement between the Chinese Olympic Authorities and their Taiwan counterparts in 1989. The later agreement articulates that “the name of sports delegations and organizations from Taiwan region in the documents, manual, correspondences, and name boards, or from broadcast, complied, issued, or delivered by organizing committee shall be Chunghwa Taipei (Chinese Taipei).”

It might seem a minor difference in English, but it’s a noticeable one in Chinese. The term “Chinese” uses Chinese characters that can be used to refer to either Chinese as a nationality or an ethnicity. Meanwhile, the term “China” refers only to China as a country — and notably is the same Chinese phrase used in the name of the Olympic team from Hong Kong, which is manifestly under Beijing’s authority.

Taiwan thus views the title of “China Taipei” as dwarfing its international status and called it “completely unacceptable.” Before the 2008 Olympics, noticing some mainland media continued to use the title of China Taipei, Taiwan successfully pressured Beijing to abide by the 1989 agreement and to unify the usage of Chinese Taipei. Now by unilaterally violating the agreement, Beijing has further eroded the already slim mutual trust.

Other acts also include Beijing’s detainment of a Taiwanese human rights advocate, Lee Ming-cheh, on suspicion of being a threat to national security in March and the subsequent decision to bar his wife from visiting.

Chinese squeezing overseas has raised more eyebrows. On May 1, the Chinese government delegation rudely interrupted the welcome ceremony at the Kimberley Process meeting in Perth, Australia to force the host into ejecting a group of Taiwanese observers, a behavior that an Australian official described “disgusting” and “extraordinary. This is not the first time international organizations, acting at China’s behest, have shut their doors to Taiwan since Tsai Ing-wen from the independence-leaning Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) took office as president in May 2016. Last year, the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) and International Criminal Police Organization (Interpol) snubbed Taipei’s requests to attend assembly meetings. And this week, with the World Health Assembly (WHA) taking place in Geneva and no invitation for Taipei, Taiwan braced for another diplomatic blow.

All of these scenes provoke a sensation of déjà vu, recalling the pre-2008 days when Beijing and Taipei were engaged in a protracted standoff and a contentious diplomatic rivalry. Nonetheless, one critical distinction stands out — Taipei now has much less leverage to strike back. Moreover, with the Trump administration swinging hard in a policy direction contrary to his harsh campaign rhetoric and appearing to appease China in exchange for its cooperation over trade and North Korea, Taiwanese have every reason to feel chills running down their spines.

Indeed, we should admit that at least until now, Beijing has yet to go into hysteria by initiating an all-out propaganda attack against Tsai and the DPP, partly thanks to the consistent self-restraint in Tsai’s cross-strait policy. Beijing’s small tricks are unlikely to trigger a crisis.

That said, these moves are equally, if not more, unlikely to push forward Beijing’s unification agenda. The mainland’s pressure is built on the assumption that with its access to the international community being blocked, Taiwanese society will become increasing frustrated with Tsai’s cross-strait policy and eventually force the DPP administration to return to the 1992 consensus or similar political formula embodying the “one China” principle.

The reality, however, is that despite intensifying dissatisfaction with Tsai’s domestic governance, the majority of Taiwanese continue to support her commitment to maintaining the status quo. Most Taiwanese view the mainland as the troublemaker in the Strait, and are unwilling to accept the 1992 consensus.

According to a Taiwan think tank poll conducted on May 9 and 10, the support rate for Tsai’s cross-strait policy stood high at 63.2 percent while 23.1 percent were dissatisfied. In addition, 71.9 percent of respondents believe that despite international space being squeezed, Taiwan should not accept the 1992 consensus. Asked about which side is being provocative in the cross-strait interactions, 58.4 percent of respondents chose Beijing with merely 23.7 percent blaming Taiwan. On the subject of Taiwan’s participation in the World Health Assembly (WHA), 71.7 percent said Taiwan should not accept the 1992 consensus in exchange for access and 56.2 percent blamed China for Taiwan’s exclusion.

Another survey conducted earlier this year similarly showed that a sweeping 77.2 percent of respondents think China has been unfriendly to Taiwan since the transfer of political power last year. Regarding China’s detainment of Taiwanese activist Lee Ming-che, an April survey found that 64.7 percent believe it negatively affected cross-strait ties.

These numbers clearly suggest that China’s Taiwan-squeezing is counterproductive with respect to achieving its ultimate end. If anything, current policy is making Taiwanese less friendly toward the mainland. So what should be Beijing’s Taiwan strategy? Among the available approaches, the most viable is still the hearts-and-minds policy.

When the China-friendly Ma Ying-jeou from the Kuomintang (KMT) was in \office from 2008 to 2016, Beijing pursued this charm-offensive approach, which remarkably de-escalated cross-strait tensions and led to a series of agreements. The KMT’s debacles in recent elections led hawks in the mainland to conclude the strategy did not work and to advocate for a tougher stance. However, when taking the rocketing numbers of mutual visitors in the past eight years, the establishment of the multilayered communication mechanisms, the creation of cooperative ties in economic, law-enforcement, cultural, and social areas, and the moderating of the DPP’s cross-strait policy into consideration, and, most critically, in view of the tremendous costs of other options on the table, the alternative conclusion could easily be reached.

Thus, Beijing should stick to the strategy, keeping its overarching principle of “winning the hearts and minds” of Taiwanese people intact. Meanwhile, major revamps need to be conducted to fit the current cross-strait situation better. The starting point of the overhauled hearts-and-minds strategy should be the recognition that Beijing’s current juggernaut fundamentally, if not completely, blocks Taiwan’s path to independence. Not only is Taiwan’s economic dependency on the mainland unlikely to be reversed, but the power gap between Beijing and Taipei is bound to further widen. Keeping this fact in mind, Beijing has every reason to be confident when designing Taiwan policy and to tolerate small headwinds.

Going forward, Beijing should build on the existing preferential policies that attract Taiwanese to work and live on the mainland to provide them with more convenience and opportunities. Additionally, the following steps should be the essential elements of the new hearts-and-minds policy.

First, Beijing should place a greater emphasis in its Taiwan policy on calming both sides’ antagonistic populist and nationalistic feelings. Beijing should start by respecting the agreements reached over decades of cross-strait interactions, and transmit “positive energy” in Taiwan-related official remarks and media coverage. In recent years, the fever of Chinese nationalistic stridency has been increasingly targeting artists, businessmen, and athletes that show signs of “separatist” ideology, triggering waves of spats between Chinese and Taiwanese netizens. Chinese officials should refrain from taking stances in these quarrels, not to mention stop imposing artificial ideological barriers on non-governmental exchanges.

Second, Beijing should adopt a principled self-restraint approach to address the issue of Taiwan’s participation in the international community. For Taiwan, this issue is one of the major sources generating grievances against the mainland. Beijing’s handling needs more flexibility and creativity. Although retreating from the one China principle on Taiwan’s participation in international organizations whose membership explicitly requires statehood is unrealistic, for the many such organizations that are not overtly political, Beijing should consider accommodating Taiwan’s participation in special ways, such as attending as an observer or a guest. For organizations where statehood is not a prerequisite, Taiwan’s contribution should be encouraged.

Third, Beijing should broaden its communications with the DPP and other pan-Green political forces. The absence of direct, effective, and reliable communication channels increases the risk of policy miscalculations. Given the current impasse, restoring the level and frequency of official exchange to that of the Ma Ying-jeou period may prove to be too demanding. Nonetheless, Beijing could find an appropriate time to resume the semi-official dialogue between the Straits Exchange Foundation (SEF) and the Association for Relations Across the Taiwan Straits (ARATS) in the near future. Meanwhile, to make up for the suspension of official communication mechanisms, regular inter-party communication channels should be created and exchanges between local governments strengthened. As for rising pan-Green forces represented by the New Power Party and Social Democratic Party, Beijing should actively and quietly engage them without preconditions.

Fourth, Beijing should reciprocate the DPP government’s goodwill and positive gestures to create incentives for the further moderating of its cross-strait policy. Since taking office, Tsai has been following her campaign promise of a “no provocation, no surprise” cross-strait policy and calling on Beijing to open dialogues. Some statements made by the heavyweights inside her administration inch even closer to Beijing’s insistence on “one China.” For example, on March 23, Taiwanese Foreign Minister David Lee stated that “cross-strait relations are not diplomatic relations.” Similarly, the minister of Taiwan’s Mainland Affairs, Katharine Chang, said that “cross-strait agreements are not international agreements.” Reciprocating such gestures with positive words and deeds, Beijing could gradually lead the relationship into a process of incremental trust-building, in which the radical pro-independence forces within the DPP will slowly be marginalized and the moderates empowered.

Beyond these concrete measures, Beijing must recognize one crucial fact as the key to approaching contemporary Taiwanese society. After decades of democratic transition; the exercise of personal freedoms; the protection of human rights of all citizens; free, open, and fair elections; the rule of law; and active participation in civil society, these universal values have deeply rooted and are flourishing in Taiwan. Should mainland China respect such values and make genuine progress in its own democracy-building, the psychological distance across the Strait would naturally decrease.

Confucius once said, “He who exercises government by means of his virtue may be compared to the north star, which keeps its place and all the stars turn toward it.”  For contemporary Chinese leaders, who seem to have an obsession of citing the wisdom of ancient political philosophers, it would be in the best interest of people on the both sides of the Strait should they translate such advice into actions.

Pengqiao Lu is an Editorial Assistant at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace’s Asia Program. You can follow him on Twitter: @plu91