In 1986, a pilot from China Airlines – then the national airline of the Republic of China (ROC) – defected to Communist China by landing his plane in Guangzhou instead of Hong Kong. Ending 40 years of silence between the two sides, the ROC’s Kuomintang (KMT) government reneged on its “no contact” policy with the mainland to negotiate the return of the plane.
The rest is history. In the years following the incident, both sides set up semi-official organizations to regulate the growing numbers of exchanges across the Taiwan Strait. In 1992 these organizations reached a compromise on the nature of cross-strait ties that the KMT would eventually name the “1992 Consensus.”
Today, with relations between the governments in Taipei and Beijing at their lowest level in decades, many view the 1992 Consensus with skepticism. In part this is due to its ambiguity: The consensus rests on an agreement between the KMT and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) that there is only one China – though both sides define China differently. A careful analysis of the key documents leading up to and in the aftermath of the 1992 meetings, however, reveals that the Consensus was not intended to resolve these differences. Nor was it created to simply paper over them. Rather, these documents suggest that what the negotiators sought to formulate was a framework to manage the cross-strait relationship within what they recognized to be an “irresolvable conflict.” They succeeded for as long as the two governments were content to stay within this framework.
Thirty years after its creation, understanding the consensus as a tool for managing – rather than resolving or shelving – the two sides’ differences can provide insight relevant to those contemplating new arrangements for cross-strait stability today.
How did the framework initially negotiated by the CCP and KMT work? First, it proceeded from the mutual recognition that the cross-strait relationship existed within an “irresolvable conflict” that had, since 1958, resulted in stalemate. When the two sides’ intermediary organizations met in Hong Kong in 1992, it had been decades since either military had tried to capture the other’s territory. Still, both governments continued to claim to be the legitimate ruler of “China”: either the Republic of China founded in 1912, or the People’s Republic of China, founded in 1949. Critically, the negotiators in 1992 acknowledged, and did not try to look away from, the “crux” of this disagreement.
Given that there was no way around this central conflict, the framework the negotiators created succeeded by providing the necessary constraints for their governments to work within it. The basis for these constraints was the negotiators’ mutual understanding that although each attached a “different meaning” to it, “both sides of the Strait” adhered “to the principle of ‘one China.’” When applied to their cooperative efforts, this understanding functioned as a limit on the scope and implications of these efforts. It meant that the two sides would work as political entities “within one country,” not within two Chinas or within one China, one Taiwan. In effect, their cooperation would be circumscribed within the political and military stalemate reached in 1958. Therefore, neither party could use the fact of their cooperation or agreements concluded during its course to alter the status quo. As the political scientist Charles Lipson has written, constraints like this one are effective because they permit only “bounded” cooperation, which can be vital to the parties’ participation in it.
Establishing the limits within which the two sides would cooperate was a prerequisite, particularly for the mainland Chinese side, to discussing cooperation itself. Only after committing to adhere to a one China framework did they turn to more substantive issues. As a letter from the Beijing office (with which the Taipei office concurred) clarified in November 1992, “[I]n functional talks, as long as both sides demonstrate a basic position of adhering to the one-China principle, the political meaning of ‘one China’ need not be discussed.”
This choice was significant. In deciding to move on to “functional” issues, the two sides made the framework they had established more durable by bringing the less controversial (and more rewarding) aspects of their cooperation to the forefront of their relationship. They thus allowed the political dispute over the meaning of one China, while unresolved, to exist in the backdrop of their expanding “islands of agreement” – to borrow a term from the international law scholar Gabriella Blum.
To be sure, the effort to prioritize “functional” discussions did not mean, as is sometimes proposed, that the 1992 Consensus depended on the two sides’ ability to “sidestep” the more sensitive political questions. The evidence reveals instead that the negotiators in 1992 led with these questions. Recognizing that they could not resolve the political questions in a matter of meetings – or perhaps, at any point – they established a framework that allowed for their collaboration regardless. The foundation of this framework was the agreement that both governments were cooperating “within one country” – a narrow but powerful limit that served to preserve the political status quo, which both sides accepted at the time.
In recent years, the 1992 Consensus has lost relevance not because this limit was destined to fail but because the governments no longer desired to stay within it. The current Democratic Progressive Party, whose roots are in Taiwan and not mainland China, does not agree with any formulation of one China and so it cannot accept the consensus. Beijing, for its part, has also changed in the 30 years since 1992. Today its government may only be satisfied with a more explicit and ambitious agreement on cross-strait ties, a possibility that could further entrench the two sides’ impasse.
As their estrangement continues, it may be worth remembering how in 1986, a plane got hijacked; a government reneged on its policy of “no contact”; and individuals with immense differences sat at the same table. If a similar catalyst were to force the two sides to communicate today, they would do well to consider the precedent set by their predecessors. Looking an irresolvable conflict in the eyes, they decided that finding the constraints to work within it was better than being destroyed by it.