What you need to know
The Tsai administration must provide a functional roadmap towards calming animosity and developing positive relations with China, writes Kent Wang.
Chinese President Xi Jinping's Jan. 2 speech reiterated Beijing's policy of “peaceful unification” with Taiwan and proposed launching a cross-Strait consultation on using the “one country, two systems” framework for unification.
In response, Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) rejected the “1992 consensus” with more force than ever before, saying Xi had equated the so-called agreement to governance under “one country, two systems” – which, if it were to take the form of Hong Kong, could see shots ultimately called in Beijing.
The “1992 consensus” has been at the center of a partisan conflict between the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), which does not recognize the consensus, and the opposition Kuomintang (KMT), which allegedly brokered the agreement in a meeting with Chinese Communist Party (CCP) officials in 1992.
Tsai has received plaudits for her rejection of the consensus. However, what if she is, in fact, deliberately misinterpreting a perfectly functional agreement?
The '1992 consensus' is certainly not a panacea that resolves all cross-Strait problems, but it is truly a masterpiece of ambiguity.
The consensus has been controversial for ages. Former KMT Legislator Su Chi (蘇起) said in 2006 that he invented the term in 2000. More recently, voices within the KMT, which historically supports the so-called consensus, have publicly disputed Xi’s alleged contention that it can be equated to “one country, two systems.”
But the fact remains: Whatever the “1992 consensus” truly is, it has functionally supported cross-Strait peace and economic cooperation for years, as shown under Tsai’s predecessor, Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九). The fundamental issue confronting China and Taiwan’s DPP-led government is a clash over sovereignty – which is what the deadlock over the “1992 consensus” represents.
The practical experience derived from the peaceful development of cross-Strait relations since 2008 confirms that the “1992 consensus” is workable and inclusive, with viable game rules. It is a critically important consensus that has been recognized, and agreed to, by the respective parties. The “1992 consensus,” whereby each side acknowledges "one China" but maintains respective interpretation of what that means, has allowed Taiwan and China to pull back from the brink of war and move toward cooperative engagement; it transformed potential volatility into peace and prosperity. A its very core, the “1992 consensus” is a commitment to upholding Taiwan’s sovereignty under the Republic of China.
It may be hard to buy this in the current cross-Strait climate. Xi has seemingly defined the “consensus” by his own terms, Tsai has rebuked it, the KMT disagrees with Xi’s latest interpretation, and the agreement may be a work of fiction to begin with.
However, this only hammers the point home: The “1992 consensus” has long filled in the gaps between Taiwan and China that can create the difference between Taiwan’s economic prosperity and isolation; between peace and conflict. It is a masterpiece of ambiguity.
It is clear from the development of cross-Strait relations over the past 26 years, which have seen the establishment of the “Three Links” between Taiwan and China, that the “1992 consensus” is the key to progress in cross-Strait relations. When Taipei and Beijing abide by that consensus, cross-Strait relations flourish. If they diverge from it, cross-Strait relations will deteriorate. And if Taipei opposes it and Beijing redefines the consensus, there will be turmoil in the Taiwan Strait.
The key to maintaining cross-Strait peace and stability in the future lies in abiding by the intent of the “1992 consensus,” as it has been utilized for decades: one China, respective interpretations.
Xi’s demand of 'one country, two systems' is not new – this has always been the CCP’s interpretation of the '1992 consensus.' But the Ma administration governed with an acceptance of this while simultaneously interpreting the agreement differently.
Between now and the next Taiwanese presidential election, the prospects of forging a sustainable peace are exceptionally low. Both Xi and Tsai have dug into their respective positions. And Xi’s new prioritization of the “1992 consensus” and “one country, two systems” is likely to unnecessarily make the situation even tenser. His definition of the “1992 consensus” contrasted with that provided over the years, which has maintained that it allows room for Taiwan to interpret “China” as being the Republic of China.
That definition, however precarious it may seem at present, is the only way to maintain cross-Strait peace and stability.
Tensions across the Taiwan Strait have emerged as one of the region's flashpoints. Four pro-Taiwan independence DPP elders issued a joint letter demanding that Tsai hands out executive power and abandon her re-election bid in 2020. During Tsai's most difficult moment, Xi delivered his talk on the 40th anniversary of the "Address to Taiwan Compatriots"; the Tsai faction looked like people grabbing driftwood in the ocean, getting collectively excited in deliberately equating the "1992 consensus" and "one China" with "one country, two systems."
However, this interpretation may be an exceedingly liberal one on the part of Tsai and her supporters.
Since Tsai ascended to the presidency, her party’s rejection of the consensus – and the resulting breakdown in official talks between Taiwanese and Chinese government representatives – has pushed Xi to veer away from the mutually vague interpretation which had governed cross-Strait peace for decades.
Xi’s demand of “one country, two systems” is not new – this has always been the CCP’s interpretation of the “1992 consensus.” But the Ma administration governed with an acceptance of this while simultaneously interpreting the agreement differently – a detente which saw cross-Strait economic ties prosper and led to a historic meeting between Ma and Xi in 2015, the first between leaders of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and Republic of China (ROC) governments since the ROC government fled China for Taiwan in 1949.
Tsai, however, faces a more important and far-reaching crisis at home following her party’s stunning election defeat. Her administration may have neglected that, in the past few years, the brusqueness of the Sunflower Movement has brought Taiwan into a dead-end alley, conversely arousing rational pondering on Taiwan's future sustenance and development, and leading the people to begin feeling tired of anti-China operations, conversely willing to look positively at the "China factor." This sentiment drove the KMT, led by Kaohsiung mayor Han Kuo-yu (韓國瑜), back into power, an indication that Taiwanese do not want “unification” with the CCP but have grown tired of the fractured cross-Strait ties that have come to define the Tsai era.
The “1992 consensus” is an effective concept. It is the means by which Taiwan sought to maintain "one China, different interpretations", "no reunification, no independence, no use force", and peaceful, mutually beneficial cross-Strait economic and trade exchanges. If this framework is shattered, the trade and diplomatic repercussions will do more than destroy the status quo. They will jeopardize Taiwan's survival. Therefore, if the Tsai government cannot maintain the status quo, it may well jeopardize Taiwan's future.
Tsai should admit defeat from the core positioning of party ideals, sounding a clarion call for the transformation of the DPP's narrative. The fundamental remedy is to forsake the Taiwan independence party platform; without the courage or the fundamental remedy, at a minimum, she should have the wisdom to find a stop-gap remedy, "freezing the Taiwan independence party platform" or using a more open-minded, progressive cross-Strait policy as a foundation to propose a new resolution, characterizing the re-starting of the transformation of the DPP's ideals and the transformation of narratives.
Tsai’s new “Taiwan consensus” is, ultimately, a repudiation of the “1992 consensus.” She equates the “1992 consensus” with “one country, two systems.” But sticking to this kind of provocative and confrontational approach is extremely dangerous.
Just imagine: Did she mean that advocating “one China, different interpretations,” and promoting peaceful cross-Strait development, while seeking commonalities and shelving divergences should all be labeled by the government as supporting the CCP's “one country, two systems”?
If the Tsai government cannot maintain the status quo, it may well jeopardize Taiwan's future.
If Tsai is truly a disciple of democracy, then she should believe that the people might, through interchanges and dialogues of various forms, rationally choose the nation's future direction, and not fabricate disinformation-inciting people to suppress others who have different opinions. Conversely, the Tsai administration repeatedly used the pretext of "anti-United Front tactics" to block cross-Strait exchanges, inversely exposing its maladministration in governance, rather employing closed-door policies and internal exhaustion than erecting cross-Strait peace.
What Taiwan needs is unification of a social coalition around positive relations with China, while Beijing should go beyond its carrot-and-stick strategy and seek a unanimous consensus with Taipei. The "1992 consensus" is certainly not a panacea that resolves all cross-Strait problems and has been criticized as an ambiguous concept, but it is truly a masterpiece of ambiguity. Let’s get real about resolving the conflict and seek a real consensus between Taipei and Beijing.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of The News Lens.
Editor: Nick Aspinwall (@Nick1Aspinwall)
If you enjoyed this article and want to receive more like it in your news feed, please be sure to like our Facebook page below.