Editorial Notes

Can back channels solve Taiwan's China impasse?: The China Post

A Chinese flag flying near apartment buildings in Beijing on Sept 11, 2015.
A Chinese flag flying near apartment buildings in Beijing on Sept 11, 2015.PHOTO: AFP

In its editorial on Oct 2, 2015, the paper questions if Taiwan and China should consider taking lessons from the manner of secret negotiations between the United States and Iran for a nuclear  agreement. 

A Sept 25 story by Politico titled "Iran Deal: The Inside Account" revealed the path culminating in the reaching of this year's nuclear agreement between Iran and the US. 

Despite being blasted by hard-liners in both countries as having sacrificed too much, the pact has cleared a final legislative hurdle in the US and is set to be officially inaugurated in October. 

Secrecy appears to have been the major factor in nurturing the success of the deal. 

From the earliest contacts in Muscat, to more than two years of discussions in Vienna, the article mentioned that all of the main actors involved shied away from the public eye in order to build trust and operate with discretion.

While the short story is that a much-praised, presentable deal — though by no means easily reached nor fully interpreted in the same way by both sides — was reached via a combination of dogged determination and a shift in the mood of governments. 

It may be worth pondering whether Taiwan's negotiations with its biggest and only nemesis, the archrival that threatens Taiwan's survival as a sovereign state, can benefit from proper secrecy and back-channel negotiations. 

Notable failures in bilateral relations have resulted from a lack of concern for the reactions of the opposing side, or perhaps defiance. 

This is happening on a contemporary basis, meaning that as a negative pattern of perceived provocations, the cross-strait relationship is currently very vulnerable to political aggression and retaliation from both sides.

The U.S.-Iran relationship has also seen blood spilt recently, and in that sense, Taiwan and mainland China should count themselves fortunate that despite the very dangerous potential for armed conflict, actual blood drawn by bombs has been a more distant story than the Vietnam war. 

For Iran and the U.S., the mutual taking of lives occurred as recently as during the 2003 Iraq war. 

An opinion voiced by a political expert in Taiwan was that Chen Shui-bian's declaration of a termination/suspension of the National Unification Council should have been timed to retaliate against China's passage of the Anti-Secession Law in 2005, which on a psychological level would have allowed China to see that Taiwan was responding to a threat instead of being the provocateur. 

The time lag between the two incidents allowed China to frame the Chen administration as the provocateur. 

It was said that both Lee Teng-hui and Chen Shui-bian had sent secret emissaries to communicate with Beijing, but both administrations had a falling out, perhaps in spite of the efforts of these back channels. 

Ultimately, the blame game illustrates just how poisoned the political relationship is, and it certainly seems as if both sides can benefit from some discreet communication. 

However, the recent trip of former Vice President Lien Chan has been a publicity disaster, as his attendance at the military parade evoked a collective Taiwanese sense of anguish at China's refusal to renounce the threat of force. 

To be fair, the Lien camp claims that their chief has been unfairly maligned. 

They claim that by going against populism, Lien was taking on the mantle of the one who bears the burden of public shaming in order to accomplish good things for the nation. 

For Taiwan, the most recent cross-strait mini-crisis occurred over the miniaturisation of the Taiwan Compatriot Pass, or Taibaozheng, that China initiated unilaterally on the basis of promoting better benefits for Taiwanese. 

The new card allows for adding electronic money to be used for high speed rail travel, for example, and coupled with the new visa-free policy, it means that travelers can save money on visas forever. 

It appears that there is a woeful dearth of back-channel communications that may or may not be the key to resolving, or at least relieving the cross-strait political impasse before the tension, compounded by impatience, builds to a critical "inflection point," as the Politico writer preferred to put it. 

Each combustion event is the culmination of pressure built up beforehand. 

With a series of positive inflection points, solutions to long-stuck standoffs might naturally come to fruition. 
Conversely, with a series of downward turns, dangerous crises might lie ahead. 

We don't expect to receive news about official government ventures in this regard, and would prefer them not to be leaked to the media because confidentiality is key to building trust. 

If the Communist Party would at least give Taiwan's emissaries a hearing, public barbs traded over issues like the military parade and the ID for Taiwanese might have a chance to be more comfortably resolved, with the possibility of better things ahead.

The China Post is a member of The Straits Times media partner, Asia News Network, a grouping of 22 newspapers seeking to promote coverage of Asian affairs.