The “1992 Consensus” and the Illusion of Detente in the Taiwan Strait

The “1992 Consensus” and the Illusion of Detente in the Taiwan Strait

The “1992 Consensus” and the Illusion of Detente in the Taiwan Strait

Former President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) told a forum on November 7, 2020, that Beijing and Taipei should recommit to the so-called “1992 Consensus” (九二共識) to reduce the risk of war in the Taiwan Strait, adding that he was open to the idea of a meeting between the leaders from both sides. Organized by Chinese Culture University (中國文化大學) and the Ma Ying-jeou Foundation (馬英九基金會), the forum coincided with the fifth anniversary of Ma’s historic 2015 meeting with his Chinese counterpart, Chinese Communist Party (CCP) Secretary General Xi Jinping (習近平), in Singapore.

Cross-Strait Peace during Ma Ying-jeou’s Administration?

As tensions between Taipei and Beijing have risen since 2016, Ma has consistently and repeatedly blamed the Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) administration for stoking tensions in the Taiwan Strait. According to Ma, President Tsai has contributed to the tensions by (a) refusing to embrace the “1992 Consensus”—a foundational element of his cross-Strait policy from 2008-2016—and (b) by overly prioritizing Taiwan’s relations with the United States at the expense of cross-Strait relations.

Since 2016, the Tsai government has countered that although it recognizes the “historical fact” that a meeting between representatives from both sides did occur in 1992, it maintains that no actual consensus ever existed. It adds, furthermore, that it is illusory to believe that the CCP subscribes—as Ma does—to the tenet that the two sides can hold different interpretations of what “One-China” (一個中國) signifies. While Ma got away with this construct in the early days of his administration—due in large part to the fact that his counterpart in China at the time, CCP Secretary General Hu Jintao (胡錦濤), was much less assertive than the man who succeeded him in November 2012—the notion that Beijing under Xi could countenance two conflicting definitions of “One-China” and therefore the possibility of “two Chinas,” is untenable (in his remarks, Xi makes it clear that the “One-China Principle” underpins the “1992 Consensus”). Much more forcefully than his predecessor, Xi has emphasized that there is only one China—the People’s Republic of China (PRC)—and that Taiwan is a province within it, one that awaits “reunification” under the “one country, two systems” (一國兩制) formula.

Although Ma called on Beijing to halt the incessant incursions into Taiwan’s Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) by the People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) in his November 7 remarks—arguing that they only cause antipathy among the Taiwanese—his comments over the years have made it clear that he largely blames President Tsai for the current state of affairs. Much like Beijing, he contends that increased Chinese belligerence is in reaction to moves by the Tsai administration that destabilized the relationship by prioritizing the United States over China, rather than Chinese aggressive behavior being the very cause of Taipei’s decision to get closer to the United States. In other words, Ma paints Chinese belligerence as defensive—the result of provocation—rather than it being the source of instability in the Taiwan Strait and across the region.

Since 2016, Ma has not only ignored President Tsai’s repeated attempts to extend an olive branch to China by suggesting a meeting with her Chinese counterpart without preconditions—offers that were immediately spurned by Beijing—but he has also refused to acknowledge that even under his watch, when Taipei abided by the “1992 Consensus” and encouraged bilateral rapprochement, the CCP was continuing its massive military buildup against Taiwan. During that period, the PLA continued to modernize its forces, acquire various platforms that would play a role in an amphibious assault on Taiwan, and hold exercises in preparation for an attack on Taiwan, complete with a simulacrum of the Presidential Office in Taipei. (Military drills in the Taiwan Strait continued during the Ma administration but were described by official media as routine annual drills, downplaying their significance; only later, when Beijing realized it could not win the hearts and minds of the Taiwanese, did the propaganda machine, often with unwitting assistance by the international press, seek to turn similar exercises into “major drills” aimed at deterring Taiwanese independence.)

Despite the signing of various cross-Strait agreements under the Ma administration, chief among them the Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement (ECFA, 海峽兩岸經濟合作架構協議) of 2010, by 2014 the Chinese regime had run out of patience with the Ma administration. This was ostensibly the result of Taipei’s reluctance to negotiate on the status of Taiwan or sign a peace agreement that, among other things, would likely result in the cessation of US arms sales to Taiwan. Another factor was the Sunflower Movement (太陽花學運) of March-April 2014, which derailed future cross-Strait agreements, severely weakened the Ma administration, and underscored the limits that democratic forces and civil society could impose upon further integration across the Taiwan Strait. From the beginning of Ma’s second term in office, CCP officials had already concluded that they could not rely on the ruling Kuomintang (KMT, 國民黨) or the central authority in Taipei to bring about “reunification.” Thus, the CCP increasingly began to bypass the central government and interact with local officials and civic organizations, benefiting from the greater access that a more permissive Ma government gave to various elements within the CCP.

Ma’s claim that cross-Strait relations under his administration were more stable also ignores the arc of Chinese assertiveness within the region during that same period, including the unilateral declaration of an ADIZ in the East China Sea and the militarization of the South China Sea. These developments, rather than being isolated from cross-Strait relations, were instead part of a pattern of expansionism within which Taiwan—because of its geographical location within the first island chain—was one of the principal pieces. Once it became clear that Taiwan would not be neutralized by “peaceful” means, Beijing shifted from a strategy of engagement to one of coercion. For the CCP, both approaches constituted a path toward the same outcome: subjugation to the PRC. Thus, by the time Ma and Xi met in Singapore in 2015, peace initiatives were mere propaganda: the Chinese leadership knew that Ma was a sitting duck who, seven months hence, would be stepping down following two terms in office and was likely to be replaced by Tsai.

Confidence Building Measures as Propaganda

Propaganda efforts were also at the core of the CCP’s approach to Taiwan during the Ma years. This includes a little-known operation that sought to convince Taipei, as well as its backers in Washington, D.C., that further integration could result in a reduction of PLA forces targeting Taiwan. This operation was conceivably aimed at encouraging Taipei to move toward signing a peace agreement with a reduction, if not cessation, of US arms sales to Taiwan. The operation in question began with obscure reports of a cross-Strait conference, held in 2010, during which Chinese officials hinted at a possible redeployment of ballistic missiles aimed at Taiwan in return for continued negotiations between Taipei and Beijing—the first and only clear instance where an actual PLA drawdown appeared to be on the table amid warming ties. These military confidence-building mechanism (CBM) “efforts” received some attention (and generated a modicum of optimism) abroad, but there was little understanding of who was involved, or what the objectives were.

The CBM dialogues, which accelerated after Ma’s election in 2008, largely involved retired military personnel from both sides of the Taiwan Strait. Civilian groups, such as the Chinese Association for Study of Sun Zi (CASSZ, 中華孫子兵法研究學會) and the Society of Strategic Studies ROC (SSS, 中華戰略學會), both comprising of retired ranking military officers, made several trips to China to meet with their counterparts on the Chinese side, who mainly consisted of retired PLA personnel who also visited Taiwan. The visits were not sanctioned by the Ma administration and did not involve active officials. The CASSZ was created by Lt. Gen. (Ret.) Fu Wei-gu (傅慰孤), a former deputy commander of the Republic of China Air Force, in January 2007 (Richard Bitzinger and James Char also briefly discuss the CBM meetings in Reshaping the Chinese Military: The PLA’s Roles and Missions in the Xi Jinping Era). Tellingly, the CASSZ’s counterpart in China was the then-PLA General Political Department’s (GPD, 總政治部) Liaison Department (LD, 聯絡部), a key player in the CCP’s political warfare apparatus. [1] Other “deep blue” KMT members who were involved in the talks included Gen. (Ret.) Hsu Li-nong (許歷農) and his close associates.

If legitimate, this effort could have demonstrated that the CCP was indeed willing to reduce tensions in exchange for gains in the political sphere (i.e., concessions by Taiwan), and would support Ma’s current theory that a return to the “1992 Consensus” and concessions to Beijing could help reduce tensions in the Taiwan Strait. The problem, however, is that (a) even under substantially more “peaceful” conditions, this initiative went nowhere and (b) the dialogue was not sanctioned by the Ma administration and involved participants who, as a source who was present at one of the meetings told this author, were instead engaging in political warfare. It was also clear from the outset that all of this would need to occur under Beijing’s “One-China Principle.” That such efforts failed to deliver even under optimal conditions in the Taiwan Strait—and that they did not occur at the official level despite Ma making CBMs a key, if aspirational, element of his policy—also demonstrates the furtiveness of such exercises. Finally, it should be pointed out that the hinted redeployment of short-range ballistic missile units would have coincided with the modernization and replacement of old Dong Feng 11 missiles with newer versions with greater accuracy and extended range—all of this, again, occurring while cross-Strait ties were supposedly showing a promise of reduced tension.

Illusions of Peace

Ma, who showed great willingness to make concessions to Beijing with the “1992 Consensus” as a prerequisite for dialogue, could not achieve any force reduction from China under Hu and his successor. It is therefore very difficult to imagine that, a decade on, concessions by the Tsai administration could yield more positive results, especially with a balance of power in the Taiwan Strait that has continued to shift in China’s favor and leadership in Beijing that has become much less flexible and increasingly assertive. Thus, while every effort to reduce tensions in the Taiwan Strait should be explored, Taipei must also be extremely careful not to fall into a trap by making concessions, which will cause irreparable damage to Taiwan’s sovereignty and security. Moving toward capitulation simply isn’t an option.

The main point: At an event commemorating the fifth anniversary of the historic Ma-Xi summit in Singapore, former president Ma Ying-jeou has called for a return to the “1992 Consensus” to reduce tensions in the Taiwan Strait. History, however, shows that even when Taipei did embrace the “Consensus,” Chinese coercion and the threat of military force were still very much part of the equation.

[1] Under Xi’s PLA restructuring in 2015-2016, the GPD was renamed the Department of Political Work [DPW, 中央軍委政治工作部], a staff department directly under the Central Military Commission. Under DPW, a Liaison Bureau is now responsible for the same kind of operations as the LD.