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An important shift in Taiwanese
attitudes to China



Jonathan Power
TFF Associate since 1991
Comments to

April 18, 2006

LONDON - Perhaps one needs to be a medieval theologian to understand the shifting nuances of Taiwan's relationship with mainland China. Not one of Taiwan's reigning, recent or likely future leaders is consistent for long. China's leaders have long blown hot and cold.

It would not matter if Taiwan were simply a small island of 23 million people. But since it is the largest single investor in mainland China, the present principal source of China's technological revolution and is claimed by Beijing as being part of China, it is probably the world's most dangerous potential flashpoint. If Taipei and Beijing spark each off, as they did in 1996 when the U.S. sent two carrier battle groups into the Taiwan Strait, then the U.S. could be drawn into a war with China. Washington is irrevocably committed to Taiwan's autonomy, as long as that is what its people want. China, as its anti-secessionist law of last year made clear, will not accept any Taiwanese move towards independence.

Autonomy? Independence? They have different shades of meaning depending on who mouths the words.

The most important development in this word game happened two weeks' ago when President Chen publicly debated for over three hours with the leader of the opposition, Ma Ying-jeou of the Kuomintang party, the polls' clear favourite to win the next election. The international press all but ignored it, yet it defined an important shift in cross party attitudes towards the mainland.

Ma shedded old Kuomintang baggage and confessed he thought the present "status quo", where Taiwan resides in a political limbo, neither part of China nor legally independent, is not unsatisfactory. Chen appeared to back away from his pro independence stance and declared himself open to an acceptance of a "consensus" made in 1992 between China and the previous Kuomintang government, if the opposition could get China's president, Hu Jintao, to confirm it. Ma insists that in the "consensus" China agreed to a formula which, while maintaining there is only "one China", "each side can have its own interpretation".

My own reading of the theology of China-Taiwan is that Chen is more open than he has ever been, that he has dropped his futile crusade to persuade his electorate to vote for formal independence and instead simply acts as if Taiwan is independent, which indeed it is in most things, albeit not in terms of diplomatic recognition. Likewise, it seems clear that not only has Ma dropped the anachronistic Chiang Kai-shek claim to rule over all of China, he has reversed his Kuomintang predecessor's provocative policy of claiming a "state-to-state" relationship. Thus the gap between the two leaders and their parties, who have hitherto seemed to be polar opposites, has been remarkably reduced.

Nevertheless, Chen maintains as a face-saver that he cannot not find any official documentation to support the existence of the "1992 consensus".

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Ma, for his part, appears to be leaning over backwards, not to antagonise Chen's supporters. In the TV debate he said he proposed "five no's" and "five do's". Four of the five "no's" are a reiteration of Chen's first inaugural address, namely, that so long as mainland China has no intention of using force against Taiwan the president would refrain from declaring independence, changing the national name or flag, incorporating the "state-to-state" theory of cross-strait ties into the constitution or calling a referendum on unification or independence. Ma's five "dos" are: to resume consultations based on the "1992 consensus", to negotiate a 50 year peace pact, to normalize trade and transportation links, to formulate a framework for Taiwan to participate in international organizations and to expand cross-strait tourism, education and economic interaction.

All this makes a lot of sense. But it could quickly be blown away if Beijing pulls the rug from under Ma by reinterpreting the "1992 consensus". Alternatively it could say "yes", that's how it is. This would be a momentous breakthrough, ushering in the promise of a settled relationship. Yesterday's meeting in Beijing between Hu and senior Kuomintang politicians was a crucial step towards defining China's attitude. After it Hu said that China was behind the "1992 consensus", although he did not add the crucial words, "each side can have its own interpretation". However, he did add that "we must resume talks on an equal footing", which some analysts are suggesting amounts to the same thing.

Ironically, if China does accept Ma's interpretation, Chen (who after winning two terms cannot stand again) and his yet unchosen successor as party leader might well move up in the polls, claiming to be the party that brought peace. For this reason alone China might wait a while before making its position clear.

Meanwhile, whatever happens in this theological debate, the policy of the center holds - one that most Taiwanese have got used to and like - the present status quo. Neither one thing nor the other, but it appears to work.


Copyright © 2006 By JONATHAN POWER


I can be reached by phone +44 7785 351172 and e-mail:


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