Implications of the KMT-CPC Breakdown

Implications of the KMT-CPC Breakdown

Implications of the KMT-CPC Breakdown

Is the relationship between the Kuomintang (KMT, 國民黨) and Communist Party of China (CPC, 中國共產黨) only “mostly dead” or “all dead,” in the immortal words of Billy Crystal’s “Miracle Max” in “The Princess Bride?” In any case, the KMT-CPC breakdown raises implications for Taiwan, United States, and other democratic countries. Observers and officials have watched for decades to see whether Taiwan builds a consensus that can fight off the CPC’s united front plots. Now is a great time for the KMT and the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP, 民進黨) to forge a stronger consensus and resilient society for national security. As the US presidential transition raises hope for bipartisanship, Taiwan also has hope for bipartisanship to counteract the CPC’s existential threat and to reciprocate US support. What are new developments and potential implications?

United Fronts and Pottinger’s Warning

Looking to 2021, the CPC’s propaganda about the centennial of its founding in 1921 has seeped into the US conventional conversation about the People’s Republic of China (PRC). [1] Just as the CPC has grafted onto the PRC as a party-state, the party’s propaganda proclaims “two centennial goals” for the 100th anniversaries of the founding of the CPC and the PRC in 2021 and 2049, respectively.

But the KMT is overshadowed. The older, reformist party in China’s modern history is the KMT, or Nationalist Party of China (中國國民黨). Sun Yat-sen (孫中山) served as a leader of the KMT that was founded in 1919. Called modern China’s “founding father,” Sun’s portrait has hung prominently in the grand reception room of the Presidential Office Building in Taipei, during the terms of KMT as well as DPP presidents.

The KMT has the longest, bloodiest history with and closest knowledge of the CPC. What lessons has the KMT learned about the CPC’s fundamental nature to threaten the existence and democracy of the Republic of China (ROC)?

The KMT and CPC forged three united fronts. Their third united front just died.

US Deputy National Security Advisor Matt Pottinger delivered a spectacular speech (in Mandarin) in October, in which he called for countries to be candid about the CPC’s interference in free societies. He cautioned that the CPC operates through plots of united front and political warfare. United front efforts exploit intelligence collection, propaganda, and psychology to corrupt the truth and insidiously influence the targeted elites and their organizations.

Pottinger did not mention Taiwan. But his warning is salient for this US partner.

Although often in conflict, the KMT and CPC started their First United Front in 1924 to fight against warlords and cooperate for national unification. Their Second United Front commenced in 1936 to fight against Japan. [2]

The CPC schemed to expand control across the strait with another united front. Now, what began in 2005 as effectively the Third CPC-KMT United Front has failed. In 2005, then-KMT Chairman Lien Chan (連戰) met with then-CPC General-Secretary Hu Jintao (胡锦涛), the first KMT-CPC meeting in 60 years. Lien flew to Beijing in April 2005, even though—just a month before—the PRC had issued its commonly condemned “Anti-Secession Law” to authorize the use of force against Taiwan. The CPC and KMT agreed, inter alia, to resume cross-Strait negotiations on the basis of the “1992 Consensus,” conclude a “peace agreement,” and set up a party-to-party platform. [3]

Isolation and Division

The Third United Front was part of the CPC’s attempts to induce Taiwan’s isolation and division. Paramount leader Deng Xiaoping (鄧小平) sought to undermine US diplomatic recognition of the ROC and its internal cohesion.

I have anticipated the latest book published in October by former United States Representative Lester Wolff. He published his account of a Congressional Delegation that met with Deng in July 1978. Deng was frustrated by delays in US-PRC normalization. He expressed concessions about respecting Taiwan’s realities in pursuing unification and about creating conditions for a peaceful solution.

Significantly, Deng privately said to Wolff, “put the Taiwan question aside. Taiwan will fall like a ripe apple from the tree. Let us adopt the Japanese formula.” The Japanese formula meant de-recognition of the ROC and an informal relationship, which was the framework that formed the Taiwan Relations Act (TRA) of 1979, co-sponsored by Wolff. [4] Wolff has told me about his clear memory of Deng’s exact words.

Deng apparently assumed that Taiwan under the KMT would be easy to take over. He also sought another CPC-KMT united front. In 1983, he said that “unification must be brought about in a proper way. That is why we propose holding talks between the two Parties on an equal footing to achieve the third round of Kuomintang-Communist cooperation, rather than talks between the central and local governments.” [5]

Belligerency and Breakdown

Deng promised a “peaceful resolution”—without renouncing the use of force—before US-PRC normalization in 1979. In contrast, CPC General-Secretary Xi Jinping (習近平) has shifted to a more belligerent approach to annex Taiwan.

For the first time since 2009, the KMT did not attend an annual event with the CPC scheduled last September as the 12th Straits Forum. The latest spat started when a CPC propaganda outlet, CCTV, issued an insulting headline to claim that KMT legislator Wang Jin-pyng (王金平) was going to the “mainland” to “beg for peace” amid the strait on the brink of war. KMT Chairman Johnny Chiang (江啟臣) did not send his party.

This dispute was not the first but the last sign of the breakdown. In January 2019, the CPC signaled at the top level that it was shifting its tactics. Xi Jinping delivered a speech on the 40th anniversary of the CPC’s message to “compatriots.” Xi stated, inter alia, that all political parties and sectors may send representatives for cross-Strait talks to uphold the “1992 Consensus.” Thus, the CPC departed from past exhortation for talks between the PRC and Taiwanese authorities, which could be led by the DPP or KMT. The CPC has re-directed its “divide and conquer” and influence campaign to the grassroots.

Moreover, Xi warned of a potential use of force. He declared, “we do not renounce the use of force and reserve the option of taking all necessary measures.”

Then, in March 2020, Xi Jinping did not congratulate the KMT’s new chairman, Johnny Chiang. The omission was the first departure from the CPC’s practice started in 2005.

National Consensus and Resilient Society

Where does the breakdown leave the KMT? What did it gain for its goodwill, while the CPC continually escalated military and other threats?

Several factors affect a new opportunity, along with the united front’s perhaps final breakdown. President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) of the DPP has governed under the rubric of the ROC, without overt attempts at de jure independence like those by the previous DPP president, Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁). Even more than the DPP, the KMT emphasizes the ROC’s existence. In January, voters re-elected the centrist Tsai, who supports the status quo. In short, the KMT and DPP have more in common with each other than the KMT has with the CPC, whose ulterior motive is to annihilate the ROC.

Moreover, in March, the KMT elected US-educated Johnny Chiang as chairman. He is a reformist and relatively young leader (48 years old) who calls for “new perspectives.” His election raised the prospect of rejuvenation and a new generation of leaders.

Also, a clearer Taiwan-centric identity has emerged by mid-2020. The share of people who identify as Taiwanese shot up from 54.5 percent in 2018 to 67 percent in 2020 (a record high). Meanwhile, those who identify as both Taiwanese and Chinese dropped from 38.2 percent to 27.5 percent. Most reject Beijing’s “one China, two systems.”

Furthermore, through 2020, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) further increased its aggressive actions. Moves have included flying PLA aircraft across the median line of the strait and into the air defense identification zone (ADIZ) of Taiwan, in the most frequent cases since 1990, reported its Defense Minister Yen Teh-fa (嚴德發).

In October, the CPC regime released its 14th Five-Year Plan for 2021-2025. Under this plan, the PLA will further accelerate its modernization by 2027.

In short, as the CPC escalates intimidation, the KMT is liberated now to show leadership to forge a stronger national consensus and resilient society. The KMT can turn to cooperate inside Taiwan for its people’s interests, instead of crossing the strait.

Bipartisanship and Reciprocity

The KMT’s contribution to a stronger consensus to counter the CPC would have positive implications for Taiwan, United States, and other democratic countries. The KMT has signaled its shifting stance. The previous chairman, Wu Den-yih (吳敦義), refused to send representatives to the annual US-Taiwan defense industry conferences until October 2019, when senior retired military commanders convinced Wu to allow them to attend to engage with US officials and industry leaders. At this past October’s conference, however, Chiang not only permitted a representative, Admiral (retired) Richard Chen (陳永康), but Chiang personally read remarks (although in a video).

The US presidential transition highlights hope for bipartisanship and Congress’ bipartisan and staunch support for Taiwan, as some question whether Biden will reverse gains in the stronger partnership in the past four years. In turn, it is imperative that the DPP and KMT unite so Taiwan reciprocates US support, including in bilateral agricultural trade based on science and international rules.

Taiwanese should recognize that there is no moral equivalency between the United States and the CPC/PRC regime. Some in Taiwan are wrong to say it was “abandoned,” is a “bargaining chip,” or “must choose” between Beijing and Washington. Some Taiwanese miss the point in translating a US strategy as “Indo-Pacific Strategy.”

Taiwan is a democracy and part of a Free and Open Indo-Pacific Strategy. Taiwan survives and thrives as part of the US-led, rules-based international order. Taipei has enjoyed a window of opportunity for a robust partnership with Washington. Another opportunity is open for DPP-KMT leadership to fortify Taiwan as a force for freedom. The PLA is the only threat to Taiwan.

The main point: The KMT is rejuvenating, rebuilding support, and recalibrating its appeal just when Taiwan requires resiliency. The KMT is now free to lead with the DPP in national security to strengthen their democratic homeland.

[1] This author precisely translates “中國共產黨” as Communist Party of China (CPC) (which the CPC also officially uses) and avoids ambiguous association of the CPC with “Chinese” culture or people.

[2] Jonathan Spence, The Search for Modern China (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1990).

[3] KMT and CPC, “Joint Statement on Peaceful Development,” April 29, 2005.

[4] Lester Wolff, Legislative Intent of the Taiwan Relations Act: A Dilemma Wrapped in an Enigma (Xlibris, 2020).

[5] Deng Xiaoping, “An Idea for the Peaceful Unification of the Chinese Mainland and Taiwan,” Selected Works of Deng Xiaoping, Volume III, 1994.