“Beijing has made a mistake by not trying to reach out to Taiwan, and its attempts to bully Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen demonstrate a lack of foresight,” said US Ambassador Stephen Young, formerly director of the American Institute in Taiwan (AIT), while in Taipei at a recent conference sponsored jointly by the Global Taiwan Institute and Taiwan Thinktank. The ambassador’s comments refer to Beijing’s suspension of senior governmental dialogue with Taipei since President Tsai Ing-wen was sworn in, in May of 2016, for her refusal to recognize the so-called “1992 Consensus” as a precondition to dialogue.
Ever since President Tsai was elected, however, she has attempted to resume official dialogue with China while committing to maintain the “status quo.” Tsai explicitly stated in her October 2016 National Day address, “The two sides of the strait should sit down for talks as soon as possible, so as to improve communication between both sides and get rid of many unnecessary misunderstandings.”
It is worth noting that China has not completely cut off all contacts with Taiwan. Beijing still works with the Kuomintang (KMT), now the opposition party with a minority in the Legislative Yuan. China prefers the KMT’s accommodating approach with regard to the so-called “1992 Consensus”—the tacit understanding that there is only one China, but with the two sides free to interpret its meaning.
President Tsai, however, has not openly accepted the “1992 Consensus,” though she has acknowledged the historic fact that the meeting took place. Earlier this month, Tsai said that she seeks a “new model of interaction” to end the deadlock with Beijing. In response, Zhou Zhihuai (周志懷), former director of the Institute of Taiwan Studies at the Beijing-based Chinese Academy of Social Sciences said, “Why bother to find a new model if the existing one works fine?” PRC academics also assert that the foundation laid by previous administrations, which recognized the so-called “1992 Consensus,” was good enough to maintain stable cross-Strait ties.
The apparently intractable problem is that Beijing insists on Tsai’s adherence to the “1992 Consensus,” and requires that it be the sole political basis of cross-Strait exchange. Although it appears that both sides are equally stubborn about this central issue, there is a critical difference: Taipei continuously and consistently reaches out to Beijing, while Beijing repeatedly turns the cold shoulder.
By working with only the opposition party rather than the current administration, Beijing is trying to delegitimize the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) government, despite the fact that Taiwan’s leaders are chosen directly by the people in free and fair elections. Taiwan’s current leaders—not a former administration—represent the will of the people today. As Beijing freezes out certain groups in its interactions with Taiwan, it knowingly bypasses the incumbent leaders that were selected by a majority of people in Taiwan.
Completely shunning the DPP is yet another example of how China’s leaders implement their policies with a kind of tunnel vision. China’s leaders are single-mindedly focused on their goals; paradoxically, this means that they are slow to adapt to changing circumstances, as in this case, when an opposition party attains the presidency in Taiwan.
The people of Taiwan elected Tsai and the DPP as a referendum on the previous government’s performance, reflecting—to a degree—concerns within society that Taiwan was moving too close to China. The Sunflower Movement that began in 2014 was a watershed moment. The movement began as a grassroots protest against a service trade pact with China that the KMT administration tried to push through the legislature for ratification. As Taiwan became more closely connected with China, many young Taiwanese became concerned about where this path would ultimately lead. This concern was aptly expressed by a young protester who joined the Sunflower movement, telling a reporter: “Maintaining the status quo will inevitably mean reunification with China.”
Chinese leaders need to engage the majority of people in Taiwan—this is key to a sustainable dialogue. Working only with pro-unification groups rather than seeking broad engagement with Taiwanese society will backfire, since working with this group will move that group further out of the mainstream. It happened when Beijing was working with the KMT administration and ignoring the opposition in previous years, and again working with the opposition party without the incumbent in the current situation.
A cooperative cross-Strait dialogue can only occur in one of four scenarios, and that is when both sides choose to cooperate. Yet both sides are currently stuck in a different situation where Taiwan is willing to cooperate, but China is not. It is thus up to China now. Cross-Strait cooperation cannot occur in the remaining scenarios: if China is willing but Taiwan is unwilling, or if both sides are unwilling, then cooperation is impossible.
Unconditionally working together and keeping all channels of communication open is also important. If one side is concerned that unconditional cooperation will reward both “bad” behavior as well as “good” behavior, then political scientist Robert Axelrod who studied international cooperation in depth says countries that push back against perceived “bad” behavior should forgive quickly and move back toward cooperation. This precludes cutting off all official contact with the party in power for an indefinite period of time. Once one side is no longer willing to cooperate with the other, then it moves the relationship away from the mutual cooperate-cooperate option into any one of the three troubled scenarios mentioned earlier.
The current situation provides a valuable moment for Chinese leaders to make a decision to engage with all parties and all people of Taiwan, and to do so unconditionally. If it reaches out, it will continue a habit and establish a track record of cross-Strait cooperation and reconciliation. If the strategic environment shifts toward the other options in Axelrod’s model, with Taiwan less willing to cooperate, it might not be up to China any longer. There is hope, as long as one or both sides are willing to communicate and work together. The real problems begin when both sides are done talking.
The main point: Taiwan’s leaders are directly chosen by the people and reflect the will of the people, therefore China should unconditionally hold official dialogues to sustain its connection to the people of Taiwan.