Early this month, Kuomintang (KMT) Vice Chairman Andrew Hsia led a delegation to mainland China, where he received a high-profile reception from the Chinese Communist Party. Hsai’s reception indicates that Beijing has certain expectations that the KMT might beat the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) in the 2024 elections, which could ease cross-strait tensions.
The DPP has ruled Taiwan since 2016, and the DPP government’s refusal to acknowledge the “1992 Consensus” caused Beijing to sever cross-strait exchanges. Cross-strait tensions have been growing ever since. The KMT won the Taiwanese local elections last fall, which increased its chances of winning the leadership election in 2024 (although admittedly that trend did not hold in 2020). Thus Hsia’s visit to the mainland at this time has attracted much attention.
The CCP also sees the possibility of party rotation in Taiwan. In Beijing, Wang Huning, a member of the CCP Central Committee’s Politburo Standing Committee, met with Hsia. Wang will soon become chairman of the National Committee of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, making him the highest-ranking official in the Communist Party in charge of Taiwan affairs. He is even considered likely to make significant changes to the theory of cross-strait unification, as requested by CCP General Secretary and Chinese President Xi Jinping.
In addition, Hsia met with Song Tao, head of China’s Taiwan Affairs Office, who directly implements the CCP Central Committee’s policy on Taiwan. Yin Li, the current secretary of the Beijing Municipal Party Committee, also met with Hsia. Yin is familiar with Taiwan affairs, having previously served as secretary of the Fujian Provincial Party Committee. Fujian province lies directly across the Taiwan Strait.
During the meeting with Hsia, Wang suggested that both sides of the Taiwan Strait should follow the overall strategy proposed by Xi in solving the Taiwan issue in the new era, to promote peace and development in cross-strait relations and create the unification of the motherland together. For his part, Hsia said the CCP and KMT should consolidate the common political foundation of adhering to the “1992 Consensus” and opposing “Taiwan independence” to promote peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait. Hsia did not mention the issue of unification.
The 1992 Consensus and the KMT’s Cross-Strait Policy
The CCP has taken the “1992 Consensus,” which recognizes that both sides of the Taiwan Strait belong to the same China, as a prerequisite for dialogue between China and Taiwan’s ruling party. But the DPP has never agreed to the consensus, which was the result of CCP-KMT meetings, not governmental consultations.
As the party that put forward the “1992 Consensus,” the KMT’s opposition to “Taiwan independence” is welcomed by the CCP. In 2020, after losing in elections once again, the KMT elected a new chair who vowed to adjust party policy toward the mainland. KMT’s then chairman Johnny Chiang advocated for rethinking the “1992 Consensus” altogether, although his effort failed to find enough support within the party.
In its new policy, the KMT did not take an eager attitude toward either “independence” or “reunification,” claiming that it would leave it to future generations to resolve. The CCP criticized the KMT’s new cross-strait policy.
The KMT’s stance on unification or independence was influenced by public opinion on Taiwan. Since then, the COVID-19 pandemic has further interrupted communication between the CCP and the KMT. The past three years have seen continued cross-strait tensions, increased military deterrence by China against Taiwan, and a certain distance between Taiwan’s public opinion and the DPP’s political demands.
The KMT has seized the gap between public opinion and the ruling party’s policy to play the cross-strait peace and development card again in an attempt to win more middle-of-the-road voters.
The KMT’s cross-strait policy is oscillating between conforming to the “1992 Consensus” and maintaining the possibility of contact with China on one hand, and conforming to public opinion on Taiwan to expand the pan-Blue camp in order to win the 2024 election on the other. This oscillation was reflected in Hsia’s emphasis on “non-independence” as part of the KMT’s cross-strait policy during his stay on the mainland. He never mentioned unification, which is obviously still quite far from the CCP’s rhetoric. However, in the current tense situation in the Taiwan Strait, the KMT’s policy still has a realistic value in stabilizing the situation.
Beijing knows well that neither the KMT nor the DPP will actively seek to open a cross-strait dialogue with unification as the ultimate goal, nor will Taiwan’s people support such a political process. At this stage, there is no full solution to Beijing’s policy toward Taiwan, only a secondary solution that maintains stability.
The Possibility of Building a New Narrative for Taiwan
It is unlikely that China will abandon “one country, two systems” as the overall solution to the Taiwan issue, but Beijing may construct a new narrative on Taiwan based on “one country, two systems” in response to the U.S. government’s attempts to internationalize the Taiwan issue by revising its narrative on Taiwan.
Since 2016, Washington has reframed the Taiwan issue as a narrative of democracy and economic prosperity. That shift has undermined the understanding reached on Taiwan when diplomatic relations between China and the United States were established in 1979. With the U.S. government’s “one China” policy explicitly including the Six Assurances made to Taiwan, the possibility exists for Beijing to portray the nature of cross-strait relations and the path to reunification in a new formulation.
As the United States adjusts its narrative on Taiwan, China’s “unification” claims are facing a continued deterioration in the moral and security environment. The U.S. government continues to highlight the success of Taiwan’s democratic transformation and economic prosperity, especially as events in Hong Kong since 2019 have led to increased skepticism about “one country, two systems” among the Taiwanese public. The confrontation between Taiwan and China is transforming into a confrontation between liberal democracy and authoritarianism, with the United States and its allies seeing the protection of Taiwan as the protection of democracy.
The new narrative of China’s approach to Taiwan should clarify what unification entails. Is there a framework beyond the state that can accommodate the institutional differences between the two sides of the Taiwan Strait as well as their respective security concerns? Ideally, this question would be addressed through political dialogue across the Taiwan Strait, but there is currently no such dialogue. If the KMT comes to power in 2024, these answers may be obtainable.
Shaping a ‘Cold Peace’ in the Taiwan Strait
In the meantime, China is shaping a security landscape in which Taiwan cannot stand on its own. Trading “time for space” is a common practice for Beijing in dealing with major issues, given the confidence that time and momentum are on China’s side.
But the long delay in the Taiwan issue has tested the patience of China’s leadership. At present, China is shaping a security pattern to ensure that Taiwan cannot seek independence. Beijing is adopting a military strategy of “preparation without war,” so that the ruling party in Taiwan does not dare to declare independence or start the democratic process of independence.
In the long run, a clear military signal from China against Taiwan independence will influence the mindset of the population so that avoiding war becomes a primary demand, which will have a counterproductive effect on the DPP government. The KMT is taking advantage of such an environment, which is a prerequisite for the possibility of another party change in 2024.
At the same time, the United States is building a security pattern in East Asia that makes it difficult for China to use force against Taiwan. Once force is used, there will be high political, military, and economic costs to China that will affect its political decisions. This strategy includes multiple elements: assisting Taiwan in upgrading its asymmetric strike capabilities; aggregating multiple collective security mechanisms and shifting the focus of U.S. security strategy to East Asia; preparing to share regional security obligations with allies; and maintaining a higher level of readiness in the Taiwan Strait, among other things.
The U.S. government’s longstanding position that it opposes “unilateral changes to the status quo” in the Taiwan Strait in the current context means that the United States will respond to the possibility of China using force against Taiwan. Recent U.S. actions in concert with its allies suggest that the United States still wishes to maintain “strategic ambiguity” regarding Taiwan’s defense, but also wishes to send a clear message to Beijing that future U.S. involvement in various forms of military conflict in the Taiwan Strait is more likely than ever before.
Predictably, China and the United States are preparing for potential conflict with the utmost seriousness. However, the ultimate goal of these preparations remains the avoidance of real conflict and the preservation of a cold peace in the Taiwan Strait for a longer period of time, provided that China-U.S. relations are managed effectively.
If the KMT wins the 2024 election, the parties will be given more breathing room to shape the contours of cross-strait relations.