Relations between Beijing and Taipei have been steadily deteriorating over the past three years, with one of the key reasons being a historical Chinese policy not to engage with any Democratic Progressive Party (DPP)-led administrations from Taiwan. This is in clear contrast with Beijing steadily building party-to-party ties with the Kuomintang (KMT), which originated on mainland China. The origins of this different treatment lie in Beijing’s perception of the DPP as a party that is ultimately independence-leaning and has not accepted the “One-China Principle,” which states that Taiwan is part of territorial China. The grassroot Chen Shui-bian (2000-2008) administration and the current moderate Tsai Ing-wen (2016-present) administration both received the same cold shoulder as a result, despite their observable differences in foreign policy approaches. In the end, both DPP presidents were pushed to build stronger relations with the United States and Japan.
This vicious cycle first started in May 2000, when Chen Shui-bian, the first president of Taiwan not from the KMT, entered office. In his inauguration speech, he pledged the famous “Four Noes and One Without“ to reassure China that he would maintain a status-quo approach toward bilateral relations. The “Four Noes and One Without” stated that Chen would not declare Taiwanese independence during his term, nor modify the current constitutional architecture pertaining Taiwan’s historical ties with China. Chen even mentioned “one China” in a future tense. This was a historical concession with an obvious aim to move forward in a potential new era for cross-strait relations.
However, Beijing did not respond positively. Immediately, on the same day, the Taiwan Affairs Office of China’s State Council stated that “on the issue of accepting the ‘One China Principle,’ [Chen] adopted an evasive and vague attitude. It is obvious that his ‘reconciliation goodwill’ lacks sincerity.” There were no positive high-level Chinese responses following up, while the Chinese government later stated that it would not engage with Chen’s administration. A golden opportunity was lost due to path-dependent Chinese reactions, and the same pattern has been repeated ever since.
When Tsai Ing-wen came into office in 2016, her inauguration speech also said that she “respects the historical fact of the 1992 cross-strait talks,” another attempt by a DPP leader to test the water. Despite this potential alignment with the debated “1992 Consensus,” China never responded positively toward Tsai’s attempts. On the contrary, a renowned expert on Taiwan in the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences was understood to have “resigned” his leadership role after positively assessing Tsai’s inauguration speech as providing opportunities to break the ice in China-Taiwan relations. Thus, three years after, what we see now is a complete deadlock in bilateral relations. All the channels between the two governments established during the previous KMT administration have ceased to function after eight years of incremental improvement.
It is understandable that in Beijing’s perception, being open to dialogue with the DPP could risk being perceived as lending legitimacy toward the DPP’s views on Taiwan’s statehood. In the DPP’s party charter, it does state in the first clause its aim to “establish a sovereign, independent and autonomous Republic of Taiwan” despite few within the DPP referencing and actively pushing this forward today. Thus, in Beijing’s mind, being consistently unbending toward DPP positions should be able (and is seen as the only way) to send a strong signal to the DPP and ultimately force them to concede.
But this political concession never happened. As the DPP continuously faced fellow pro-independence competitors within Taiwan’s party landscape, be it the older Taiwan Solidarity Union established by former President Lee Teng-hui, or the New Power Party currently attracting a lot of support from younger generations, it had only marginal room to backtrack from its held positions. Under Taiwan’s democratic system, bending too hard toward Beijing’s stance could mean potential political suicide for the DPP. What Beijing’s nonconciliatory attitude toward the DPP has done, in effect, was to discredit factions within the DPP that advocated engaging China and push the entire party (and its supporters) further away.
This stalemate has increasingly frustrated not only the DPP, but also Beijing in the past two decades. As the recent article “China Has Lost Taiwan, and It Knows It” by Natasha Kassam shows, we see how a frustrated China, thinking itself no longer capable of winning the hearts and minds of Taiwanese, is increasingly resorting to strategies of disinformation, infiltration, and military intimidation toward the island. While these tactics might help pressure certain groups in Taiwan to advocate the idea that concessions toward China are necessary, it simultaneously hardens negative perceptions of China among middle-ground and independent-leaning populations. It also encourages the idea that China is a threat only and can only be dealt with as a threat. The crisis in Hong Kong isn’t helping Beijing sell the “one country, two systems” framework to the Taiwanese people either. To put it bluntly, China’s nonengagement policy toward the DPP is helping no one, not even Beijing itself. China is effectively pushing itself toward confrontation with Taiwan because of its lack of willingness to adjust antiquated approaches.
Presumably China still upholds its principle of peaceful unification, as it has since 1978. But what Chinese leaders are doing now is instead enabling a self-fulfilling prophecy that only force can ultimately resolve bilateral differences. The use of force would be equally disastrous for Taiwan and China, and would almost certainly destroy China’s international image and significantly destabilize its domestic order. And even with the military capabilities that the People’s Liberation Army possesses today, it might not even win the war, a result that would further damage the current Chinese government’s ability to remain afloat both domestically and internationally. If both sides are to avoid this catastrophic conflict, however, China will have to learn to engage the DPP, at least one small step at a time.
Whether Beijing likes it or not, its preferred counterpart, the KMT, is undergoing a slow process of fragmentation due to political infighting, while the DPP is here to stay and highly anticipated to win the Taiwan presidential elections in 2020. Taiwan Foreign Minister Joseph Wu has already stated in a recent interview that “if President Tsai is reelected, we’ll continue to … maintain the status quo across the Taiwan Strait. We’ll continue to send out goodwill gestures to China.” But the moderation of bilateral tensions can only happen when both sides are committed. China should at least try to put forward certain signals of rapprochement if the moderate Tsai wins re-election for a second term in January.
Jeremy Huai-Che Chiang is a Non-Resident Research Associate at the Taiwan-Asia Exchange Foundation and MPhil Candidate at the University of Cambridge, U.K.