Fifteen years ago, when mainland China and Taiwan signed their first agreements, the opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) was beset by fears that the ruling Kuomintang (KMT) would sell out the island’s 23 million residents. The DPP’s solution was to send representatives to Singapore to ensure that only technical matters, not political issues, would be discussed.
Now, after eight years in power, the DPP finds itself in opposition once again, and it still worries about what the KMT might do. But there is little danger of President Ma Ying-jeou agreeing to political unification between Taiwan and the mainland. In fact, he has said that possible reunification won’t even be discussed during his term in office.
In his inaugural address on May 20, Ma asserted that Taiwan’s mainstream public opinion supports the principle of “no unification, no independence and no use of force.”
Just like 1992 in Singapore, Taiwan’s “unofficial” Straits Exchange Foundation (SEF), meeting with the mainland’s “unofficial” Association for Relations Across the Taiwan Straits (ARATS), was authorized only to discuss and agree to specific issues – weekend charter flights and mainland tourists.
When Chen Yunlin, chairman of the ARATS, proposed representative offices be set up in each other’s capitals, Chiang Pin-kung, the SEF chairman, told him that the issue had to be decided in Taipei.
Agreement on charter flights and tourists was quickly reached, because these issues had basically been resolved while Chen Shui-bian was president. But future issues, including weekday charter flights, scheduled passenger flights, cargo flights and shipping will take longer to resolve.
After that, they should move into more complex areas, including the lowering of investment barriers, the prevention of double taxation and the protection of intellectual property rights. And, further down the road, there may even be a peace agreement between the two sides, bringing to a legal conclusion the Chinese civil war of the 1940s.
As these issues are resolved, and the “three links” – direct trade, transport and mail connections – are finally realized, both sides will benefit economically. But when the discussion turns to political issues, the road will be strewn with dangerous obstacles.
Over the years, Beijing has learned to be sensitive to Taiwan’s feelings. President Hu Jintao, for example, no longer refers to the “one China” principle because he knows that it is not acceptable to many in Taiwan. Instead, he uses the term “1992 consensus,” which is ambiguous, allowing each side to define “one China” as it sees fit.
Hu has repeatedly said that the new situation in cross-straits relations was “hard won” and is to be cherished. He has even expressed understanding for Taiwan’s need for international space, such as participation in the activities of the World Health Organization.
But, pushed to its logical conclusion – and Taipei will no doubt keep pushing – international space for Taiwan would include membership in the UN, something to which Beijing is adamantly opposed, on the grounds that a country’s sovereignty is indivisible.
Mainland China’s dilemma now is what to do about the Republic of China, which continues to exist and is coterminous with Taiwan, even though Beijing refuses to recognize it. But it must realize that there is a political entity out there, whether called Taiwan or the Republic of China, and it cannot insist that all countries in the world shut their eyes and pretend this entity doesn’t exist.
An acceptable solution
Beijing’s position is that there cannot be two Chinese governments, because that would mean two Chinas, and all Chinese people in the world want to see a unified China.
When Germany was divided, though, both East and West Germany were in the UN, with people on both sides paying obeisance to the concept of a “German nation.” Similarly, today, North and South Korea are recognized as separate countries, but both sides adhere to the ideal of eventual unification.
This shows that political recognition of two Chinese states in the world does not mean accepting the permanent division of China. In fact, both sides of the Taiwan Strait are now using similar vocabulary and are talking increasingly about common membership in a “Chinese race.”
That, rather than “one China,” may ultimately provide the solution to Beijing’s dilemma.