Tien Hung-Mao (田弘茂), chairman of Taiwan’s semi-official Straits Exchange Foundation (SEF, 海峽交流基金會) made a trip to Kinmen Island (金門) in late December 2016 to discuss future commercial engagement with China. During the visit, he maintained that Kinmen will serve as a “model spot for peaceful cross-Strait relations.” Both the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and Taiwan possess a keen sense of how history works to influence their strategic endgames, and America should continue to participate in this process to better understand Beijing’s intentions and strategy in the Strait, and the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) initiative to uphold the so-called “1992 Consensus.”
In short, by viewing Kinmen as a “middle ground,” the United States may have a better indication of what cross-Strait relations will look like under the Tsai presidency. The Taiwan Strait crises of the Cold War era are not mere isolated points in the evolution of cross-Strait affairs. In fact, the tiny overlooked islands that served as contentious battlegrounds during the Chinese Civil War remain at the nexus of cross-Strait dialogue.
Kinmen is a small island only two kilometers off the coast of the PRC. Kinmen, directly translated from Mandarin, means “Golden Gate,” and stands as a historical reference to the island’s geo-strategic and commercial importance. When assessing cross-Strait relations in 2017, the island’s reputation will precede its role as a potential bellwether for cross-Strait relations. On the beachhead at PRC-administered Xiamen (廈門), there is a billboard reading, “和平統一, 一國兩制” which in English says, “Peaceful unification, one country made up of two systems.”
Looking through binoculars from Kinmen, one can easily make out the PRC political propaganda, reminding residents of the danger their neighbor poses. In opposition to the PRC assertion of sovereignty, Xiao Jinmen, also known as “Lesser Kinmen” (小金門) houses a similar sign that retorts on behalf of Taiwan, “三民主義統一中國” translating roughly to “Three People’s Principles to Unify China.” The Three People’s Principles became the philosophical cornerstone of the ROC’s counterattack to take back the Chinese mainland after the KMT fled to Taiwan, and remains influential with regard to Taiwanese political identity.
The cross-Strait signage raises interesting questions involving Chinese and Taiwanese national identity and political agency on the larger global stage. The propaganda phenomena allude to the importance of geography when understanding cross-Strait relations. Moreover, Kinmen serves as a distinct symbol of Taiwan’s dynamic national identity and how identity affects policy. Indeed, the small island still continues to influence cross-Strait political economy as tensions ramp up in the South China Sea. Though military engagements are currently absent, the prospect of peace remains uncertain. However, a tumultuous war-torn past could give way to economic and cultural exchange, as both China and Taiwan attempt to achieve geopolitical ends in the region through different means, as seen with the 2010 Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement.
Leading up to the so-called “1992 Consensus,” bilateral initiatives to curtail military confrontation began in dialogue between the Association for Relations Across the Taiwan Straits (ARATS) and Straits Exchange Foundation (SEF). These talks sought to establish cooperative policy to combat crime across the Strait while facilitating the exchange of goods, mail, and citizens. Almost ten years later, President Chen Shui-bian made Kinmen a vital feature in bilateral agreements with the PRC in his proposed “Mini Three Links” (小三通) agreement and “Active Opening” policies. Such legal moves opened the floodgates for a crossflow of PRC-Taiwan culture, goods, and people. Though Taiwan sought to protect strategic industries such as semiconductors from global market competitors while abiding by the Wassenaar Agreement to terminate dual-use technology sales to China, the subsequent President Ma Ying-jeou worked to liberalize cross-Strait exchanges after his election in 2008. The “Mini Three Links” had the potential to become the “Big Three Links.”
Now, in 2017, Kinmen facilitates a relatively peaceful bilateral relationship with the PRC to bolster its economy, ensure a flow of natural resources, and maintain connections with relatives who live across the Strait. Kinmen relies on both the PRC and Taiwan for entrepreneurial ideas, kaoliang liquor consumers, tourist income, and water supply. The Kinmen government seeks to increase transportation to and from Xiamen by ferry and through the construction of a new bridge. With increasing movement, Kinmen hopes to raise incentives for investment from Chinese private businesses. Kinmen’s annual marathon and natural habitats also draw numerous Chinese tourists, students, and investors across the strait, thereby facilitating future economic connections. Indeed, investment traffic has continued to increase even after President Ma left office.
However, Kinmen is seen as a political outlier and maintains a distinct identity that is not always congruent with national interests. Still, this disconnect may prove useful as Taiwan comes to terms with the implications of a pluralistic identity and seeks to moderate tensions from national parties vying for extreme cross-Strait liberalization or restriction. Commercial interconnectedness in the Strait will aid Taiwan’s initiative to achieve a more level diplomatic playing field with Beijing while seeking to establish political independence, at least in theory. Kinmen serves as a prime site in which leaders and students from both the PRC and ROC can engage with one another to resolve current tensions between Tsai and Xi. Since a meeting is unlikely to be in the cards for Tsai and Xi, Taiwan could benefit from using Jinmen as a sort of economic and cultural recon center to get a sense of Beijing’s geopolitical intentions.
Recurring military conflict and changing national identities have, in a sense, shifted the political climate between Taiwan and China, respectively forcing them to reflect on their decisions to engage in warfare while also noticing the long-term benefits of regional knowledge and stability for Taiwanese market growth. If eventual independence is the desire of the Taiwanese people, president Tsai could harness the soft power benefits provided by Kinmen.
Looking past the likely demise of the Trans Pacific Partnership, the United States may seek to understand cross-Strait investment and entrepreneurial exchange through the lens of Kinmen. Indeed, this “Kinmen model,” as Tien alluded to, has the potential to offer insight into Beijing’s approaches towards dealing in the Strait, and provide an avenue to defuse the ongoing political tensions. As difficult as it may be for both entities to swallow their political pride, the late American historian Nancy Bancroft Tucker put it best: “Ultimately, Beijing and Taipei will reach an acceptable agreement only through direct dialogue.” The United States has an opportunity to act as a responsible conduit in facilitating this dialogue.
The main point: The “Kinmen model” has the potential to offer insight into Beijing’s approaches towards dealing in the Strait, and provide an avenue to defuse the ongoing political tensions.
 Nancy Bernkopf Tucker, Strait Talk: United States-Taiwan Relations and the Crisis with China (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2009), 277.