Introduction: Strait Talk and Changing Cross-Strait Relations

Introduction: Strait Talk and Changing Cross-Strait Relations

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Introduction: Strait Talk and Changing Cross-Strait Relations

People-to-people connections are undisputedly important when de-escalating conflict. A 2016 news release by Taiwan’s Mainland Affairs Council (大陸委員會) stated that “Normal cross-strait exchanges and interaction are conducive to improving the feelings and well-being of the people on both sides, as well as to the soundness of cooperation on global functional issues.” Still, despite this acknowledgement, the number of opportunities for Taiwanese and Chinese people to connect as individuals have been steadily decreasing. In recent years, the number of mainland Chinese students studying in Taiwan has fallen drastically, with the total reaching zero during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic and rebounding to just 2,523 in 2023. This is less than 10 percent of the number of students in 2015, in which 34,114 mainland Chinese students were studying in Taiwan. 

Some of the few remaining opportunities for interaction end up prioritizing political narratives, rather than allowing the individuals themselves to shape the conversation. For instance, although Ma Ying-jeou’s (馬英九) April delegation of college students allowed its participants to visit various locations in China, the trip also reiterated pro-unification themes such as accepting the “1992 Consensus” and that both sides of the strait are “one country, one people.”  Another recent example of this could be seen in February when two fishermen from an unmarked, illegal Chinese fishing vessel died while fleeing from the Taiwan coast guard. People’s Republic of China (PRC) Taiwan Affairs Office Spokesperson Zhu Fenglian (朱鳳蓮) blamed the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP, 民進黨) directly for its handling of the incident. The Kuomintang (KMT, 國民黨) also used the incident  as an opportunity to position their own party as being better equipped to handle cross-Strait relations: stating that “the KMT has dialogue channels with the mainland side … but we are not the ruling party,” and urging the DPP to establish dialogue with Beijing—ignoring the fact that the DPP, even as recently as Lai Ching-te’s victory speech, has extended several olive branches to Beijing without any success.

Now that the DPP has secured four more years as the ruling government, the same tensions and political stalemates are guaranteed to continue. In the face of limited people-to-people exchanges and strong incentives to hijack cross-Strait narratives for political gain, non-partisan forums such as Strait Talk, which analyzes the cross-Strait relationship through a humanizing lens and fosters direct dialogue, are even more essential for understanding and de-escalation. 

Strait Talk and Interactive Conflict Resolution

Strait Talk (海峽尋新) is a non-partisan dialogue workshop that empowers young people from both sides of the Taiwan Strait to collaborate in transforming the Taiwan Strait conflict. It was established in 2005 by a group of undergraduate students at Brown University when cross-Strait tensions were high after the Chinese government passed the Anti-Secession Law, which codified Beijing’s policy of resorting to unpeaceful means to achieve reunification if necessary. Each symposium features young delegates representing the PRC, Taiwan, and the United States; the delegates go through a series of conflict analysis and resolution workshops over several days led by facilitators who come from either side of the Taiwan Strait or the United States. It is one of the world’s first (and longest running) initiatives that enables direct dialogue on politics and identity between young people from both sides of the Taiwan Strait and the United States, with the goal of moving toward mutual peace and understanding. It has held chapters at universities in Hong Kong, Taipei, and Berkeley, California. Active dialogues are now held annually at George Washington University, Brown University, and the University of Alberta, Canada. 

Although war has not been seen in the Taiwan Strait since the 1950s, the Strait Talk symposium defines the cross-Strait relationship as a conflict–one that cannot be resolved without addressing its complex, deeply-rooted causes. The symposium utilizes the method of interactive conflict resolution (ICR). First developed by John Burton in the 1960s, ICR is defined by Ronald J. Fisher as “small-group, problem-solving discussions between unofficial representatives of parties […] involved in protracted social conflict.” [1] Protracted social conflict refers to conflict that is ongoing and caused by the “denial of elements necessary to the development of all people,” such as “security, distinct identity, [and] social recognition of identity.” [2]  Additionally, discussions that take place during ICR workshops are “directed toward mutual understanding of the conflict and the development of collaborative actions to de-escalate and eventually resolve it.” [3] 

Strait Talk analyzes the Taiwan Strait conflict through exploring what people from Mainland China, Taiwan, and the United States (the three conflicting parties) fundamentally need, rather than analyzing the problem through a geopolitical lens or positions represented by government policies. One benefit of ICR is the emphasis that it places on “mutual recognition and consensus building,” which allows the participants to share their grievances and acknowledge the challenges that each group faces as a result of the conflict. 

Overall, ICR is commonly divided into three phases: education, dialogue, and consensus. First the delegates learn about conflict resolution studies. Then they share their personal experiences of collective trauma resulting from the conflict—often these grievances center around identity, politics, and their shared history. Lastly, they aim to achieve a consensus of real-world policy proposals that can be used to resolve and de-escalate the conflict. 

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Image: Strait Talk dialogue participants in Taipei, circa 2018. (Image source: Author Ava Shen)

From Conflict Resolution to Conflict Engagement 

Strait Talk has strived to adapt in the face of stark geopolitical realities in recent years, as shown by a sustained freeze in official cross-Strait communication and an increased level of Chinese military operations in the Taiwan Strait. Strait Talk has shifted its emphasis from conflict resolution to conflict engagement. The symposium facilitators are under no illusion that the cross-Strait conflict can be easily resolved. Rather, they aim to empower delegates to stay engaged in this conflict through their individual action plans, which are incorporated into their professional and personal lives. These plans have the potential to foster connections and conditions that are conducive to the eventual resolution of the cross-Strait conflict. This approach makes conflict resolution seem less daunting and identifies concrete, actionable opportunities for young people to contribute to their vision of cross-Strait peace. 

History and Storytelling at Strait Talk 

The exercises “Walk Through History” and “Personal Storytelling” are highlights among the conflict analysis activities at Strait Talk. The first is designed to compare official PRC, Taiwanese, and American historical narratives regarding the cross-Strait relationship to assess the differences in historical memory among the three sides. Each delegation writes down eight historical events that its members believe are the most important in shaping the trajectory of cross-Strait relations. Facilitators then arrange all 24 historical events in a chronological order on the floor of a room and lead the delegates in a silent walk-through of the timeline they constructed together. Dr. Tatsushi Arai, founding Strait Talk facilitator and associate Professor of Peace and Conflict Studies at Kent State University, published a longitudinal study in 2023 of twenty historical timelines from symposia held between 2005 and 2021. His study illustrates that social memory of the cross-strait conflict is historically constructed, subjective, and always changing, which implies the realities of the conflict as experienced by the conflict’s parties are always shifting. [4]

Personal Storytelling is designed to humanize the cross-Strait conflict through stories shared by the delegates on their personal relationship or history with the Taiwan Strait conflict. The combination of official and personal histories aims to provide the delegates with a well-rounded view of the conflict. Many past participants of Strait Talk remember the exercise as an emotional experience wherein the Taiwan Strait conflict is transformed into something vivid that concretely affects people’s lives. 

This special issue of the Global Taiwan Brief features articles written by Strait Talk alumni. Authored by delegates from Taiwan, Hong Kong, and the United States, the articles show how cross-Strait tensions impact global cooperation in humanitarian aid and climate change policy, how cross-Strait fatigue has resulted in growing support for a third choice in Taiwanese politics, and why strategic empathy is important for resolving this conflict. 

The main point: Enduring tensions across the Taiwan Strait have made dialogue, including those at the grassroots level, indispensable. Strait Talk, a non-partisan dialogue workshop that brings together young people from both sides of the Taiwan Strait and the United States, provides a unique platform to analyze and engage with the cross-Strait conflict through a people-centric lens. 

[1] Ronald J. Fisher, Interactive Conflict Resolution (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1997), 142.

[2] Ibid 5.

[3] Ibid 8.

[4] Tatsushi Arai, “Engaging Conflict History and Memory Across the Taiwan Strait: A Longitudinal Analysis of the Conflict Timelines from Interactive Conflict Resolution (ICR) Dialogues,” Negotiation Journal, vol. 39, no. 1, Winter 2023, 35-70. https://doi.org/10.1111/nejo.12422