by Xiao Han:
Last month, the first meeting between cabinet-level officials from the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and Taiwan since 1949 took place, suggesting a new chapter in cross-Taiwan Strait relations. Zhang Zhijun, the director of the Taiwan Affairs Office (TAO) of mainland China, met with Wang Yu-chi, the head of the Mainland Affairs Council (MAC) of Taiwan. The meeting was historic as a symbolic and unprecedented improvement in the relations. Nonetheless, the necessary political consultation to actually advance the state of cross-Strait ties will face strong challenges, and the current turmoil in Taiwan over handling of the cross-Strait services trade agreement is a clear example of the sensitivities in Taiwan-Mainland relations discussed in this essay.
The meeting reflects new developments in cross-Strait relations. Both sides have worked to gradually institutionalize an intergovernmental communication mechanism over the past six years. The communication evolved from government-authorized non-government negotiations to this intergovernmental meeting. These developments have created stable and increasingly valuable platforms for cross-Strait negotiations. Most important, the Zhang-Wang meeting suggests that both sides may recognize the need to discuss the sensitive political issues. PRC leader Xi Jinping set the stage last October by telling former Taiwan Vice President Vincent Siew that the two sides could not allow political differences to pass on from generation to generation.
The results of the Zhang-Wang meeting, however, reflect the lasting suspicions and divisions within cross-Strait communication. To begin with, the meeting achieved no substantial breakthrough. The April 1993 meeting between the PRC’s Wang Daohan and Taiwan’s Koo Chen-fu, the heads of non-governmental organizations designated to conduct cross-Strait negotiations -Taipei’s Straits Exchange Foundation (SEF) and Beijing’s Association for Relations across the Taiwan Strait (ARATS) – broke the political deadlock in effect since 1949, and laid the foundation for communication. The April 2005 meeting between PRC leader Hu Jintao and another Taiwan former vice president, Lien Chan, formed another important communication channel to help manage difficult issues.
The Zhang-Wang meeting achieved consensus on some procedural issues such as the establishment of a regular communication mechanism between TAO and MAC and endorsement of the continuation of the negotiations under the 2010 Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement as well as to establish SEF and ARATS representative offices. All are continuations of previous negotiations.
Second, the topics and agreements avoided “high” political issues. For example, to avoid domestic debate in Taiwan, both Wang’s speech and the MAC statement after the meeting referred only to the “1992 Consensus” but did not mention the “one China” framework that Beijing has been promoting.
Third, there were clear divisions even regarding the “low” political issues discussed, as portrayed through the differing descriptions in the statements of the two sides.
Finally, this communication mechanism is limited to TAO and MAC, not other agencies. This exclusive arrangement demonstrates that while both sides are eager to promote increased institutionalization, neither wants to risk moving recklessly. The two officials also avoided detailed discussion about a potential meeting between Xi Jinping and Ma Ying-jeou, which implies that high-level political communication faces resistance, despite frequent exchanges at lower levels since 2008.
The Zhang-Wang meeting has three implications for the future of cross-Strait communication. First, both the SEF-ARATS and CPC-KMT communication channels will continue to play an important role in strengthening the resilience of cross-Strait relations.
Second, the Zhang-Wang talks will continue, hopefully able to advance relations in ways that the arrangements up until now have not.
Third and most significant, however, is whether the two sides can begin political consultations. After six years of following the principle of “economics first, politics later” (“å…ˆç»åŽæ”¿”) and “easy problems first, difficult ones later” (“å…ˆæ˜“åŽéš¾”), the divisions in political systems, values, identity and history have not been reduced. Although the very fact of these differences would seem to call for political consultations, the reality is that these fundamental discrepancies, including over the legitimacy of the PRC and ROC, and the debate on maintaining the status quo vs. pursuing reunification, are irresolvable in the foreseeable future and will make meaningful political dialogue very difficult.
Future political consultations will face several major challenges. The first is determining what can be discussed and how to frame the issues. Is “the Taiwan issue” framed as the unresolved result of a civil war, or does it represent a more fundamental spilt across the strait? What would the political framework of a peace accord look like, and what terms could both sides accept? Essentially, what is the nature of the relationship between Taiwan and the Mainland?
The second issue is how to conceive of the “one China” framework, which lies at the core of these questions. The concept of “one China” is ambiguous as a political foundation for cross-Strait communication. Is “China” the PRC or the ROC or something else? Would a united “China” be defined as “one country, two systems” or “one country, two areas”?
Finally, to undertake political consultation, both sides need to shape public opinion to accept a new “one China” framework. A consensus on “one China” can only be achieved by mutual compromises and will likely differ significantly from the traditional political narratives. To succeed, both governments must resist huge domestic pressures from a wide range of political ideologies and form a strong, mutually acceptable foundation for the new “one China” framework. Especially given the sharp divisions within Taiwan about what the appropriate cross-Strait relationship should be, this is an enormous challenge.
The student-led protest in Taiwan over the past two weeks is testing what has been discussed. Not only do the strong opposition emotions illustrate the strength of fear and anti-mainland sentiment among the public, but Taiwan media are reporting that Zhang Zhijun has postponed his visit to Taiwan, showing the fragility of the new communication mechanism. To some extent, this turmoil ironically proves the value of cross-Strait communication for mutual understanding. How the Taiwan government handles it will influence not only stability within Taiwan but also the course of joint development for people on both sides.