With growing military activity in and near the Taiwan Strait increasing the risks of an accident, it has become clear that Taipei and Beijing should find ways to reopen communication channels lest a collision or miscommunication escalate into a major armed conflict. This point was implied in President Tsai Ing-wen’s (蔡英文) recent speech delivered virtually at a Washington think tank: “What we seek is constructive cross-strait dialogue … [w]e see a necessity for both sides to find a way to coexist peacefully based on mutual respect, goodwill, and understanding.” Indeed, with more than 120 Chinese military aircraft entering Taiwan’s Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) since mid-September, some sort of confidence-building mechanism (CBM) is required to help reduce tensions and serve as a conduit for de-escalation should an incident (e.g., a mid-air collision involving an aircraft from the People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) and a Taiwanese interceptor) require quick dialogue.
Following the election of Tsai Ing-wen of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP, 民主進步黨) in 2016, Beijing shuttered all official means of communication with Taiwan, chief among them the line that had previously been set up to link the Mainland Affairs Council (MAC, 大陸委員會) on the Taiwanese side and the State Council’s Taiwan Affairs Office (TAO, 國務院臺灣事務辦公室) in China. In the past, ad hoc mechanisms were occasionally used to facilitate dialogue between the two sides when situations arose that made radio silence impossible. This was the case when several Chinese nationals died in a bus accident in summer of 2016, as well as when Taiwan—using the semi-official Straits Exchange Foundation (SEF, 海峽交流基金會)—sought to make it possible for relatives of Taiwanese nationals who were facing prosecution in China to attend their trial, as occurred following Lee Ming-che’s (李明哲) arrest and prosecution. No doubt the two sides have also relied upon trusted envoys and quiet channels to ensure a modicum of dialogue.
While firmly defending Taiwan’s bottom line, President Tsai has repeatedly extended an olive branch to the regime in Beijing, stating on several occasions that she would be willing to sit down with Chinese Communist Party Secretary-General Xi Jinping (習近平), so long as no preconditions are set for such talks. In return, Beijing has insisted that Taipei must first recognize the so-called “1992 Consensus” (九二共識) and its corollary “One-China Principle” (一個中國) before such dialogue can resume. Insistence on both sides, therefore, has contributed to the impasse. However, it is important to point out that while the relationship is at its nadir, only one side has responded by adopting a military threatening posture to compel the other side—and that is China. Therefore, while it may be possible to blame both sides of the Taiwan Strait for the current state of affairs, the asymmetry in how each government has reacted to it undermines the argument that the two sides are equally responsible.
While Taipei’s stubbornness can arguably be said to have contributed to the chill, only the Chinese side is truly to blame for the dangerous instability that currently prevails in the Taiwan Strait. It is Beijing that has decided to militarize the matter. This, in turn, should guide how countries like the United States—the incoming Biden administration above all—formulate their policy vis-à-vis Taiwan and China on this matter. Treating the escalation of tensions as if there were a moral equivalence to Taiwan’s defensive and China’s offensive postures, or as if both sides were equally responsible for the current crisis, will only result in failed policy.
Everybody, therefore, seems to agree that dialogue is necessary. This point was also emphasized by participants in a recent webinar in which former President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) hosted and former American diplomat Susan Thornton, among others, participated. There was general agreement that dialogue has become necessary and that the United States should encourage the two sides to pursue it. While it is difficult to disagree with this contention, we should also be wary of setting immoderate expectations of what can be achieved through renewed dialogue. At best, some sort of CBM could in theory contribute to a reduction in tensions in the Strait and serve as a mechanism through which incidents can be addressed before they escalate into something with more potential to destabilize the region. However, the idea that a resumption of dialogue would help resolve the tensions that underlie conflict in the Taiwan Strait can only lead to disappointment.
For one thing, even when bilateral relations were at their best—which Ma argues occurred during his tenure—it is important to note that little, if any, progress was made on the critical issue of Taiwan’s status. Although Ma, by embracing the “1992 Consensus,” was able to move forward on economic and social matters across the Taiwan Strait, he was unable to make any progress on the more complex political issues. And when he approached those, such as by proposing a peace treaty, he was quickly forced to pull back. Moreover, even when agreements which were ostensibly purely economic in nature—such as the Cross-Strait Service Trade Agreement (CSSTA, 海峽兩岸服務貿易協議)—were perceived to have potential for political repercussions, Taiwanese society responded by taking action, this time in the form of the Sunflower Movement (太陽花學運).
Democratic forces within Taiwan, therefore, impose limits on how far their government can go in its talks with China. On the Chinese side, frustration with the lack of progress on the “Taiwan issue” and signs of a more activist US involvement on Taiwan’s side have also undermined the appeal of dialogue. Various commentators—among them academics, retired PLA generals, as well as pro-unification elements from Taiwan appearing on Chinese internet and TV programs—have all bemoaned the limits that Taiwan’s politics and democracy have imposed on the kind of progress that Beijing would like to see. More and more, those analysts have concluded that politics in Taiwan are such that no “peaceful” resolution of the longstanding conflict is possible without either the use of force or some form of military coercion. In their view, neither the DPP nor the “China-friendly” Kuomintang (KMT, 中國國民黨) is willing to engage in serious dialogue on Taiwan’s political future within “One-China.” Furthermore, they increasingly recognize that democratic forces are such that any politician who proposed to negotiate over the public’s head would quickly be dispensed with through electoral retribution. Only small parties, such as the New Party (新黨), China Unification Promotion Party (CUPP, 中華統一促進黨), and the Red Party Taiwan (中國台灣紅黨 ─ 红黨), have the will to engage in such talks, and presumably the desire to do so on Beijing’s non-transparent and non-accountable terms. But Beijing knows that those outliers have no chance of being elected to office, let alone playing a role in the central government.
Speaking at the Global Times Annual Forum 2020 in Beijing in early December, Zhu Feng (朱鋒), a professor of international relations at Nanjing University, observed that “We have seen enough political farce within the island and we attach no hope to the political forces within the island to change the status quo and make joint efforts with the mainland to realize the reunification. […] The key is that to what extent China can dominate the situation in the West Pacific. As long as China has enough strength and influence,” unification “will only be a matter of time.” Echoing such views, Chiu Yi (邱毅), a pro-unification former legislator from Taiwan stated that “If [peaceful unification] means reunification without pressure from the mainland, then the peaceful reunification won’t happen. If it means peaceful reunification under military pressure, then it would be possible.”
If such views are any indication of the official position within the upper echelons of the CCP, then even the possibility that a resumption of dialogue could bring some stability back to the Taiwan Strait may be premature, if not naïve.
It may well be that China has concluded that no dialogue—and no “peaceful reunification”—will be possible absent the use of force or coercion. And the trends being what they are in Taiwan, it could be correct in reaching that conclusion. Consequently, the resumption of limited dialogue between Taipei and Beijing, whatever form it takes, would from this point on likely be accompanied by continued—albeit possibly reduced—PLA activity in Taiwan’s ADIZ. And unless Taiwan capitulates and agrees to dialogue on Beijing’s terms (i.e., the “One-China Principle”), the likelihood that the situation in the Taiwan Strait would return to the status quo ante (i.e., the Ma years) is very slim. In fact, for all its successes in reducing tensions and facilitating exchanges at the economic and social level, the Ma administration also highlighted, if inadvertently, the limits of what dialogue can achieve.
In light of all this, decision makers in Taipei, Beijing, and Washington, D.C., should set realistic and practical aims for the resumption of dialogue across the Taiwan Strait. The most that can be achieved, arguably, is a CBM that can help clarify signals, reduce the risks of accidents, and facilitate de-escalation and collaboration (e.g., search and rescue) in the case of a collision or accident in contested areas. Pressuring Taiwan to aim for anything more than that would put it at an unfair disadvantage; expecting that Beijing would agree to go beyond that, meanwhile, would very likely be an exercise in futility.
The main point: While renewed dialogue between the two sides of the Taiwan Strait may be desirable, it is unlikely that talks would succeed in achieving more than a temporary reduction in tensions and providing a platform to address emergencies.