Cross-Strait relations have come to a stand-still since President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) took office in April 2016. China has been continuously pressuring her refusal to accept the so-called 1992 consensus (a tacit agreement between Taipei and Beijing that maintains the existence of ‘One China’, but with differing interpretations) and has rejected direct engagement with the Tsai administration unless it wholeheartedly embraces this ‘historic agreement’.

Beijing’s unilateral adamancy for this outdated framework has let relations in the Taiwan Strait to anguish in political limbo. The Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) has rejected this consensus due to its lack of validity, and the party’s advocacy for Taiwanese independence. Furthermore, the oft proposed ‘One Country, Two Systems’ has been proven to be a false promise, as seen in Hong Kong; namely through the 2014 protests and their aftermath, as well as the recent ban of the pro-independence Hong Kong National Party.

Despite unwavering diplomatic isolation and political pressure from China, Tsai Ing-wen has proclaimed her intention of strengthening cross-Strait relations, while upholding the status quo and preserving Taiwanese sovereignty. She has repeatedly voiced her progressive intentions for continued dialogue without accepting the so-called 1992 consensus, promising that any developments would be “in accordance to the Republic of China constitution.” China remains unconvinced of the DPP’s intentions and has closed all major lines of communication, leaving Tsai in a political quagmire. This complication spurs the question: What alternatives can Taiwan pursue in order to continue meaningful dialogue with China?

One possible approach is to propose a new accord based on a "Special Relations, Different Interpretations" framework. For Beijing, this could portray cross-Strait relations under a state-to-autonomous region arrangement. For Taipei, "special relations" could be construed as ties between two political entities that are to be more precisely defined in the future. This broad statement benefits the Tsai administration in three major ways.

Firstly, because this redefined clause is just as vague as the current 1992 consensus and entails a similar philosophy, it could potentially avert a political stalemate while simultaneously open up another channel for deeper relations with Beijing. The 1992 consensus that Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九), the former president, had followed, undeniably paved the way for amicable relations with China. Economic, cultural and academic exchanges reached an unprecedented level between the two sides; and tensions in the region quickly faded.


Photo Credit:中央社

Relations with Beijing were warmer under former President Ma Ying-jeou, but cross-Strait relations have yet to establish a new paradigm in the post-Sunflower era.

However, nearing the end of the Ma administration, Taiwanese became more wary of its neighbor’s growing influence over the island nation and it was very evident that China’s underlying goal of unification was the reason for many of its goodwill incentives towards Taiwan. This severe distrust of China culminated in the 2014 Sunflower Revolution. As democratic values and transitional justice have become increasingly important for Taiwan, and the existing frameworks have emerged as outdated and infeasible, a new foundation must be created. This "Special Relations, Different Interpretations" paradigm could serve as a suitable vehicle for the revitalization of cross-Strait dialogue.

Secondly, embracing this progressive strategy puts Taiwan in a positive light – both domestically and internationally. Tsai’s unwavering eagerness and enthusiasm for maintaining warm relations with China would show Taiwanese her flexible pragmatism, as well as demonstrate her cross-Strait activism. Furthermore, because of its intentional ambiguity, this phrase does not confine Taiwan to any specific political track; remaining in line with her devotion to the Taiwanese people. Following this new guideline also solidifies the country's image as a vital democratic ally in the international arena. Washington would certainly notice Taiwan’s sincere rapprochement towards China, leading deeper confidence in the island nation’s peace efforts in the region.

Finally, this new proposition would place Beijing back under the political spotlight and has the potential to force China to lower its cross-Strait negotiation threshold. Refusal to engage with the DPP administration would portray China as the major bottleneck to safeguarding peace in the Taiwan Strait; and shatter its credibility as a responsible shareholder in global affairs. For a country intent on being a world superpower, this would undermine any positive reputation it had in the international community.

Ultimately, any success in advancing cross-Strait relations depends on Beijing’s willingness to cooperate. Tsai must therefore constantly exert pressure on China to change its demeanor through flexible rationale and an eagerness for deeper ties. The "Special Relations, Different Interpretations" proposition is not meant to be a permanent solution; rather it is to serve as a stepping stone to initiate new talks.

Critics may argue that this "Special Relations" framework is too broad and Beijing may see this a step backward from a "One China" model, which would be a fair criticism. However, the more concerning issue is China’s lack of initiative to compromise. President Xi Jinping and his predecessors have been stubbornly promoting the so-called 1992 consensus for so long, they fail to see that this framework is no longer a viable approach. Cross-Strait dialogue must be a two way street, and so far, Beijing’s stubbornness and pessimism is tarnishing the entire process. Whatever path Tsai decides to take, she must take the lead in re-establishing trust to encourage China to get with the program.

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Editor: David Green (@DavidPeterGreen)

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