Although Tsai Ing-wen asserted after the Democratic Progressive Party’s victory in presidential elections that Taiwan is already “an independent country,” Beijing’s mild reaction of reiterating the “inevitability” of reunification with Taipei shows that a peaceful solution to Beijing-Taipei relations will arguably remain possible in the long run.
While the mainland’s social media has recently been filled with commentaries written by mainland commentators advocating a hard-line military solution to deal with Taiwan’s political future, some foreign observers have simultaneously maintained that the Republic of China (ROC) on Taiwan has little choice but to strengthen its military capability in the asymmetric power relations with the People’s Republic of China (PRC). Assuming that there is no peaceful solution, hard-line supporters of both sides have insisted on a military alternative.
However, given the mild response of the PRC officials responsible for Taiwan to Tsai’s assertion, and given PRC President Xi Jinping’s early 2020 speech that emphasized the Chinese renaissance and Chinese dream in handling Taiwan’s future, it can be inferred from the relatively self-retrained responses from Beijing that a peaceful solution to Beijing-Taipei relations is and will be possible.
The obstacles of the current political impasse between the PRC and ROC are twofold. First, Beijing’s think tank members on Taiwan need some time to come up with a feasible solution to solve Taiwan’s political future, especially as many Taiwanese voters have apparently rejected the “one country, two systems” model of solving the island’s political future.
The PRC officials responsible for Taiwan are hamstrung by the need to cling to the official rhetoric of using “one country, two systems” to deal with Taipei. Yet, recent developments have shown that some mainland officials have espoused the term “Taiwan model” of “one country, two systems” to cope with the ROC. It means that PRC officials have been given the green light to slightly move the goalpost of “one country, two systems” to a more unique Taiwan model. Of course, this minor concession in rhetoric does not mean anything from the perspective of those Taiwanese people who have a very strong Taiwanese identity.
The second obstacle to the present political deadlock is the popularity of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), whose leaders believe that a hard-line policy toward the PRC has a huge political market, bringing Tsai to the second term of presidential office.
As such, the intermediaries that can narrow the differences between the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and the DPP, namely the Kuomintang (KMT), the New Party and other Taiwanese people who support political integration with mainland China, remain relatively unpopular and marginalized.
In order to break the political impasse, new initiatives must come from the PRC side. Once the PRC think tank members on Taiwan can propose a feasible solution, then the intermediaries between the two sides of the Taiwan strait can and will work as peaceful agents more effectively.
Two scenarios appear to be likely in Beijing’s long-term responses to the DPP’s electoral victory.
First, the new initiatives from the PRC side are likely to be characterized by a pattern of applying harder economic measures first and then giving out economic and political carrots later.
In the short run, it appears that the PRC’s ban on the mainlanders’ visits to Taiwan will likely continue, exerting more economic pressure and isolation on the island republic. Similarly, the Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement would likely encounter discontinuation from the mainland side.
In the medium term, the PRC side would likely delineate the features of the Taiwan model of “one country, two systems,” specifically Taiwan would be allowed to participate in more international organizations after Beijing-Taipei political integration. At the same time, Taiwan’s intermediaries will be fully utilized to float such idea of the Taiwan model, generating discussion and debate in Taiwan. A stage-by-stage process of first, economic integration, socio-cultural interaction and infrastructural development will likely be triggered, followed secondly by mutual political dialogue and then finally by intensive negotiations on the details of the “reunification.”
The second scenario is that Beijing would deepen the process of economic integration by lifting the restrictions on mainlanders’ visits to Taiwan at a ripe time, creating a gesture of political and economic goodwill in such a way as to open the dialogue with the DPP leaders, especially with the assistance of the intermediaries from Taiwan. In this scenario, Beijing would likely want to have a quicker process of reaching a simple agreement, or perhaps a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU), with Taiwan. Such agreement or understanding includes the key elements of the 1992 consensus, namely both sides agree to disagree with the content of one China (PRC on the mainland side and ROC on the Taiwan side), but it would add the concrete benefits that Taiwan would gain, such as its participation in international organizations apart from the maintenance of existing lifestyle and capitalist system as well as its own military.
In order to reach an agreement or an MOU between Beijing and Taipei, both sides would still require intermediaries, especially Taiwanese business people in the mainland, as the conduits to bring back the messages from the top leaders of both sides to the other.
Predictably, both Beijing and Taipei would have to exchange a precondition, namely, while Taipei would have to renounce independence in black and white in such agreement or MOU, Beijing would have to simultaneously renounce the use of military force to deal with Taipei.
Once this very critical precondition is met by both sides, then it can be anticipated that Beijing would demand the open adoption of the 1992 consensus in the content of the Memorandum of Understanding, namely, both sides agree that there is one China, but both sides can agree to disagree with the meaning of one China (PRC on the mainland side, ROC on the Taiwan side). Once Taiwan agrees with the 1992 consensus, it would demand more concrete benefits to the ROC side.
After these two key preconditions were ideally met, then other matters would likely be discussed more easily, including a stage-by-stage process of reunification, namely the first stage is marked by an accelerated process of economic and socio-cultural interactions between the two sides. The Taiwanese people will continue to be welcome to invest, reside and work in mainland China, as provided in the current arrangements of the PRC government for the Taiwanese people. The second stage would likely be characterised by the construction of infrastructure projects to connect mainland China with Taiwan, like underground tunnels and mega-bridges that may link the Fujian province with Kinmen and Taiwan. The final stage would be marked by more intensive political negotiations between both sides on the details of political reunification, like whether a new institution would be set up for the people of Taiwan to elect their representatives to articulate their views and interest in this new body. At the moment, Beijing appears to have no idea of how Taiwan representatives can be brought into the National People’s Congress in the event of a political breakthrough, but the problem is that the Taiwan people would have neither the interest nor the incentive to send any representative to a mainland political institution. Hence, the PRC think tank needs to think more critically and imaginatively on whether a new Beijing-Taipei political body would be established in order to connect the people’s representatives from both sides.
The final stage of political negotiation would not be easy for Taiwan’s leaders, regardless of whether they come from DPP or KMT, the demand is that political reunification must take place after the PRC becomes a “democracy,” as implied by President Tsai’s recent remarks that Beijing has to deal with Taipei by using the concepts of “peace, parity, democracy and dialogue.”
On the Taiwan side, at present the DPP got its anti-infiltration law passed by the Legislative Yuan, preventing the people of Taiwan from becoming a mainland Chinese lobby group to influence Taiwan’s politics. Hopefully, this law would be implemented loosely. If not, Beijing-Taipei relations would be undermined and some Taiwanese people who often interact with the mainland would likely fall into the scope of this legal instrument.
Finally, in order to facilitate both sides to achieve a breakthrough in the quest for a peaceful solution, finding a third country for dialogue and negotiations will be necessary. Singapore will remain an ideal country, given the unprecedented historical meeting between President Xi Jinping and KMT President Ma Ying-jeou in Singapore in November 2015. Singapore will likely remain politically neutral, but the provision of a venue for both PRC and ROC sides to have dialogue and negotiation would contribute immensely to a peaceful resolution of Taiwan’s political future.
In short, amidst the hard-line military option that the supporters of the PRC and ROC sides have floated, a peaceful solution to Beijing-Taipei relations will arguably remain possible and feasible, but timing will have to be right for this possible breakthrough to take place. In particular, the PRC think tank will have to reconsider its tactic and strategy imperatively and innovatively.
MNA Political commentator