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Principles versus policies in cross-Strait relations

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Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen appoints Tainan city mayor William Lai (R) as a prime minister during a news conference in Taipei, Taiwan 5 September 2017. (Photo: Reuters/Fabian Hamacher).

In Brief

Recent events have not augured well for the stability of cross-Strait relations. Since the election of President Tsai Ing-wen of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) in 2016, the two sides have struggled to find common ground that reconciles Beijing’s determination to prevent Taiwanese independence with Taipei’s determination not to recognise Beijing’s claims of sovereignty over Taiwan.


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The Tsai administration seemingly extended a gesture of goodwill by stating its respect for the constitutional system of the Republic of China. But Tsai’s reference to the Republic of China and its connotations to the ‘one China’ principle does more harm than good for the relationship. Beijing has refused to accept Tsai’s position as a substitute for the one China principle.

The one China principle is the position that Taiwan and mainland China are both part of China. But there are very different ways of interpreting this position. For Beijing, it is the principle that there is only one China — the People’s Republic of China — and that its government is in Beijing. But according to Taiwan’s Nationalist Party (Kuomintang/KMT), the one China principle refers to the Republic of China (ROC), which it claims Taiwan has been part of since ‘retrocession’ in 1945.

Both Beijing and the KMT agree to the ‘1992 consensus’, which says that there is one China, but they disagree as to whose China that is. The DPP, which is currently in power, rejects both the 1992 consensus and the one China principle. The DPP has traditionally supported Taiwan’s independence from China, but centrist figures within the party (led by the Tsai administration) have recently emphasised a commitment to the status quo without an acceptance of either the ‘1992 consensus’ or the one China principle.

The one China principle is then distinct from the one China policy, which does not imply recognition of Chinese sovereignty over Taiwan. The one China policy is the US’s interpretation of the situation — essentially that the political status of Taiwan is undetermined. Recognition of Beijing as the government of China does not automatically imply recognition of Beijing’s sovereignty over Taiwan. The DPP may wish to consider stating its own version of a one China policy as the basis for cross-Strait relations.

A DPP one China policy would necessarily be distinct from the United States’ one China policy, since there is a fundamental difference between the position of a Taiwanese administration and that of a third party. For instance, where the United States does not make regular pronouncements on Taiwan’s political status, the DPP would probably emphasise the claim that Taiwan’s status is undetermined.

The shift to a DPP one China policy would not require a major concession on the question of Taiwan’s status, but it would come symbolically closer to the one China principle than any formulation that the Tsai administration has attempted so far. By acknowledging (though not recognising) Beijing’s position that Taiwan is part of China and by making a commitment not to pursue a unilateral change in the status quo, the Tsai administration would be able to extend an olive branch to Beijing without compromising on its core principles.

The DPP could look to the United States’ one China policy formulation framework in the 1972 Shanghai Communique, which acknowledges Beijing’s position that Taiwan is part of China but does not reciprocate that position.

In such a policy, the DPP could also imply that any ultimate decision on Taiwan’s political status would require the support of the Taiwanese public and cannot be decided unilaterally by the Taiwanese government.

It would then be in Beijing’s interest to scale down its confrontational policies toward Taipei in exchange for the DPP’s adherence to the one China policy. Since Tsai’s inauguration, Beijing’s cross-Strait policy has been binary in nature: it has considered every deviation from the one China principle to be equally offensive and equally deserving of punishment. This policy is actually counterproductive for China because confrontational measures — such as restricting Taiwan’s participation in international organisations and poaching Taiwan’s diplomatic allies — are likely to embolden domestic and international supporters of Taiwanese independence.

This does not mean that Beijing would need to accept the DPP’s one China policy as a substitute for the one China principle. The Chinese mainland could still offer positive incentives for an acceptance of the one China principle, such as a resumption of cross-Strait dialogue and greater latitude for Taiwan to conclude trade agreements with third parties. Nevertheless, Beijing could consider the one China policy to be enough of a concession by the DPP to warrant refraining from further confrontational measures.

Most importantly, a DPP one China policy may be acceptable to the people of Taiwan and may play a healthy role in Taiwan’s democracy. According to Formosa Polls, in recent surveys most respondents were unwilling to accept various formulations of the one China principle, but they were more likely to support the United States’ one China policy.

The implementation of a one China policy would have to be handled carefully given Tsai’s declining approval ratings and the growing divisions between centrists and independence supporters in the DPP. To avoid alienating its support base, the administration would have to effectively communicate the fact that the one China policy does not imply recognition of Chinese sovereignty over Taiwan. Such a policy would not preclude the possibility of an independent Taiwan any more than it would preclude the possibility of reunification with the Chinese mainland. It would essentially be agnostic about Taiwan’s future.

The one China policy represents an opportunity as much as it does a challenge. In addition to potentially leading to better relations with the Chinese mainland, it would help to clarify what the Tsai administration means when it affirms its commitment to the ‘status quo’: that even though Taiwan functions as an independent state, its international legal status is currently undetermined. Taiwanese voters would then have a choice between this understanding of the status quo and the alternative offered by the KMT in the form of the one China principle: that even though Taiwan functions as an independent state, it has been part of China since ‘retrocession’ since 1945. These are both coherent interpretations of the complex network of treaties and communiques that govern Taiwan’s foreign relations, and they are both consistent with the desire to maintain stability in cross-Strait relations.

James Lee is a PhD candidate in the Department of Politics at Princeton University.

2 responses to “Principles versus policies in cross-Strait relations”

  1. One China policy or principle is just a word game and a trap. Nearly the whole world recognizes ‘One China’, which means the People’s Republic of China and Taiwan is a province of China. China now seems powerful enough to overwhelm US in some fields. China eagerly constructs Belt and Road Initiative and outputs its socialism with Chinese characteristics, which China intends to subvert the democratic value that the western imposes on other countries. So, for China, Taiwan isn’t an urgent issue to solve, unless Taiwan declares independent. Taiwan is gradually hard to escape from China, just as Sun Wukong was unable to somersault out of Tathagata Buddha’s palm. Taiwan is too near China but too far from heaven. It’s pessimistic for certain Taiwanese independent dream. Actually, Taiwan is leaning toward China, whether economy or culture. It’s a fate when a small country confronts a dominant one. Even Trump also flatters China. All the world drools for China’s super-big market. As for human right and freedom that US always propagates, forget it. Unless Taiwan is strong enough and then owns the right to speak or it seemed inevitable that Taiwan is marginalized. One China policy will be fruitless because the DPP government would be reluctant to be stained with China. Tsai will consider one China policy a trap. On the contrary, Tsai is undergoing desinicization. DPP and KMT are the same in essence, except possessing different signboard to call for election voters enthusiasm. DPP doesn’t dare provoke China and all she can to do is to prevent being a trouble maker; otherwise, the Big Brother will be annoyed at that. Don’t bother potting a novel strategy for the politicians; they just desire to grasp the power of ruling. We don’t know what will happen in the future, but as time goes by, it is thought to be more and more disadvantageous for Taiwan. If Taiwan is firmly magnetized by China, the present dispute is no longer a problem. Until then, US won’t be capable
    of getting benefits by manipulating cross-Strait issues.

  2. This article provides keen understanding of the complex concept of ‘one China’, which, as my 2016 article titled “One China, Five Interpretations” published on The Diplomat, asserts there are five interpretations. My forthcoming e-book on ‘One China’ – the product of a grant awarded to me by Taiwan’s MOFA – provides an in-depth analysis of the concept of one China. Both the KMT and the DPP perceive the issue of sovereignty is resolved: Taiwan is an independent state. The major issue is the future of Taiwan. The KMT wants to unify with the mainland under the system of democracy, whereas the DPP wants to continue to promote the Taiwanization of Taiwan, which, in effect, means it wants to Taiwan to remain separated from the mainland. Indeed, the PRC’s One China Principle and the U.S.’s One China Policy are two distinctive interpretations of the concept. The Principle states that Taiwan is a part of China and will become a formal part of China in accordance with the “one country, two systems” formula. In contrast, the U.S. position contains two frameworks that promote different policy positions on issues such as Taiwan’s sovereignty as well as the definition of ‘one China’. Regarding President Tsai Ying-wen’s interpretation of the status quo, the DPP perceives the status quo represents an independent Taiwan. For this reason, the President expresses no support for the 1992 Consensus and the “One China Principle”. Both the former and the latter declare that not only is Taiwan part of China but also its future is determined: Taiwan will become a part of the mainland and the Taiwan authorities will be subordinated to the PRC authorities within the communist system. My e-book covers these issues. Stimulating article that offers incisive insight into a complex problem affecting the evolving regional security architecture.

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