March 16, 2015, by Editor

Has China Demolished the Taiwan Consensus?

Written by Gunter Schubert.

In a recent contribution to the National Interest, Michael Cole, a journalist in Taiwan and editor of Thinking Taiwan, claimed that China had demolished the Taiwan consensus. He referred to the so-called ‘1992 consensus’ which holds that Beijing and Taipei maintain that Taiwan is a part of China but acknowledge at the same time that they disagree or have different interpretations on what ‘China’ precisely means. It has long been known that the ‘1992 consensus’ was made up post hoc by then Mainland Affairs Council Chairman Su Qi to serve as a pragmatic formula to make cross-Strait talks possible.

Even though it has been contested ever since by the opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) and called a fake consensus, Cole rightly notes that “the framework yielded dividends and allowed the relationship to flourish”, especially since the KMT’s return to power in 2008. He then continues by contending that CCP general secretary and state president Xi Jinping created doubts about the formula when addressing the Chinese Political Consultative Conference during its recent annual session in Beijing. Xi’s administration, Cole argues, has modified the ‘1992 consensus’ by claiming that there is only ‘one China’, but skipping the second part of ‘different interpretations’.

Cole goes on to identify a strategy of gradual conflict escalation, “one in which the norms, or baselines, are constantly shifting to reflect Beijing’s preferences”. He then derives from this a rising pressure on the DPP to accept the ‘1992 consensus’, lest it doesn’t want to become an “outlier” with no leeway to talk to Beijing in the future. At the same time, pressure is also increasing on the ruling KMT which, according to Cole, is “already afoot (…) to transcend the consensus” and, quoting MAC minister Andrew Hsia, is ready to “start negotiations on political relations, a military confidence-building mechanism, and a ‘peace framework’” anyway. Cole predicts that KMT chairman Chu Li-lun and his party will be “compelled to move closer to Beijing’s new goalposts”. Things would be even more tricky for the DPP which may soon find itself forced to defend the wider formula of the ‘1992 consensus’, thus “recognizing a mechanism it currently regards as illegitimate”.

Cole’s argument, backed up by similar statements in the Taiwanese media by some other scholars, sounds convincing but I am inclined to take issue with it. First of all, I cannot see any real change to the ‘1992 consensus’ articulated by the Beijing leadership. Xi Jinping has certainly upped the ante in many policy fields (think of his foreign policy and his campaign-style initiatives in the domestic arena) since he took over the wheel. But his Taiwan policy has so far not left the wording of previous governments going back to the Deng Xiaoping era. What he stressed recently in Beijing was another confirmation that: a) China upholds the ‘1992 consensus’ as the foundation and condition of exchange with Taiwan’s authorities and political parties; b) its essence is to acknowledge that the mainland and Taiwan belong to ‘one China’; c) if this foundation is shattered, mutual trust across the Taiwan Strait becomes impossible and cross-Strait relations must return to a state of instability.

Looking through my files on the ‘1992 consensus’, I cannot find one official Chinese statement that has deviated in substance from this one. China has never officially acknowledged the “two interpretations” part (I am ready to be corrected here by written evidence). Consequently, what Xi has said is no “demolition” of the ‘1992 consensus’ but just a repetition of what has been known for many years. Hence, the DPP’s position vis-à-vis Beijing hasn’t changed either. It will face an arduous task to get into talks with China’s leaders if it doesn’t fall in line with the ‘1992 consensus’, no matter if it allows for different interpretations or not. Xi Jinping reiterated just this, period.

I also think that Cole misreads the current position of the KMT vis-à-vis Beijing and its exposure to Chinese pressure. Sure, there are voices within the ruling party that support ‘political talks” with Beijing. But to the best of my knowledge, the overwhelming majority of leading KMT politicians and office-holders do not. It is pure speculation when Cole (and others) insinuate that Chu Li-lun may be heavily influenced by his father-in-law Kao Yu-jen, who is supposed to be a staunch supporter of unification (which is debatable, if posed in these terms). My own sources tell me other things about Chu, but I would rather watch what happens than make such information the basis of a statement on the KMT’s future China policy.

Since China’s position on Taiwan has not changed, there is no more or less pressure on the KMT government to engage in political talks than there has been since the beginning of the second Ma administration. I admit that Xi has articulated his desire for progress to achieve unification in the not so distant future with some impatience at various public occasions, and this has almost certainly been accompanied by more such speak through confidential channels. But Beijing cannot enforce it. Without substantial backing from the public for such a move, no KMT government would ever dare to start ‘talking politics’ with China for real. I say this plainly as Cole might claim the opposite.

China is an independent variable in the cross-Strait theatre. It says ‘one China’ and means a unified country under PRC sovereignty. The KMT says ‘one China’ and means the ROC. The DPP refuses to say ‘one China’ and struggles, so far unsuccessfully, for terminology that neither betrays its commitment to Taiwan independence nor its quest for power. This is, more or less, where we stood in 2008 and 2012. As we stand now, facing elections in 2016, we see a ‘war of position’ where everybody has digged in.

Gunter Schubert is Professor of Greater China Studies and director of the European Research Center on Contemporary Taiwan (ERCCT) at the University of Tübingen. He currently works at the Institute of Sociology at Academia Sinica in Taipei. Image Credit: CC by Prince Roy/Flickr

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