The "one China" principle has figured greatly in Beijing-Taipei relations and Taiwan's changing politics may redefine it once more
Relations between China and Taiwan are headed for a period of uncertainty with the election of independence-leaning Tsai Ing-wen as president and her Democratic Progressive Party's (DPP) majority in the legislature.
That is because Ms Tsai had in the run-up to last month's elections shown herself to be unwilling to acknowledge the existence of a 1992 consensus on "one China", which Beijing has set as a bottom line for continuing high-level engagement with Taipei.
It was this so-called consensus - generally taken to be that there is one China with the two sides having different interpretations of what "one China" means - that led to historic, public cross-strait talks in 1993 and a thawing of ties that led to burgeoning economic and people-to-people exchanges.
BLOWING HOT AND COLD
For over four decades from 1949 to 1992, cross-strait ties were in deep freeze. The year 1949 was when the civil war on the mainland between the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and the Kuomintang (KMT) ended. The KMT was defeated and fled to Taiwan.
There was a thaw after the 1993 talks, made possible by the so-called consensus, but high-level, if semi-official, talks stalled again in 1999 when then Taiwanese President Lee Teng-hui characterised ties between China and Taiwan as "special state-to-state relations", with the People's Republic of China (PRC) on the mainland and the Republic of China (ROC) on Taiwan.
That was unacceptable to PRC leaders, who deemed the ROC dead after the KMT's defeat in 1949. It also negated the "one China" principle that Beijing insisted on.
In 2000, the DPP's Chen Shui-bian came to power, ending more than five decades of KMT rule in Taiwan. Mr Chen denied the existence of a consensus in 1992, saying only that he would work with the mainland "on the question of a future one China". The impasse over the 1992 consensus meant that high-level, semi-official talks were frozen for the next eight years, with only low-level technical talks leading to small changes, such as limited direct charter flights between the two sides.
From 2000 to 2008, relations between the two sides were fraught. Taiwan passed a referendum Bill in 2003 that allowed a referendum on sovereignty issues to be held. China instituted an anti-secession law in 2005 that mandated the use of force should Taiwan declare independence.
It was not until 2008, when the KMT returned to power, that talks resumed on the basis of the 1992 consensus. Cross-strait relations improved then, and economic and people-to-people exchanges boomed again.
So what exactly is the 1992 consensus? Does it even exist? And why has it figured so greatly in cross-strait ties such that the acknowledgement or denial of it on Taiwan's part determines the state of relations?
DOES A CONSENSUS EXIST?
Technically, there was no such thing as a consensus in 1992. It was a term coined in 2000, in the dying days of the KMT government, by its Mainland Affairs Council chief Su Chi to describe the difficult 1992 negotiation process which included meetings in Hong Kong and an exchange of letters, and culminated in the 1993 talks in Singapore.
At the time, while both sides held that there was one China, the sticking point was their disagreement over what "one China" meant. In order to get round this dispute, the Taiwanese proposed that "each side may through verbal announcement define the notion of 'one China' as it chooses" (later shortened to "each side having its own interpretation of what 'one China' means"). The Chinese accepted this solution, which to them meant leaving open the definition of "one China".
And the differences were huge: For Taiwan, there was one China but two separate political entities; "one China" meant the ROC had de jure sovereignty over all of China, although, at the current moment, the ROC had jurisdiction over only Taiwan, Penghu, Kinmen and Matsu islands.
China's position was that there was one China, Taiwan was a part of China and the People's Republic of China was the only lawful government of all of China.
It was the willingness of both sides to be flexible and to allow ambiguity on what "one China" meant that made possible high-level talks in 1993.
That was what the 1992 consensus was about.
As for Ms Tsai's stance on the matter, it is significant that in 2000, in her capacity as Mr Chen's cross-strait policymaker, she rejected the 1992 consensus. She insisted that there was only the "spirit" of 1992, to seek common ground while holding to differences. And as far as the DPP was concerned, Taiwan was a separate and independent state.
During the recent presidential campaign, Ms Tsai largely evaded the issue of the 1992 consensus, stressing instead that she would work to maintain the status quo and stable development of cross-strait ties. In her victory speech after being elected president on Jan 16, she said she would conduct cross-strait ties in accordance with the ROC's constitutional system, implicitly acknowledging "one China" as articulated in Taiwan's charter. That was as close to the 1992 consensus as she would go, given her strong convictions. But her position is unacceptable to the Chinese as it is tantamount to their admitting that there are two Chinas - PRC and ROC.
It now looks as if the two sides are entering into another impasse over the 1992 consensus, given that Chinese President Xi Jinping has laid it down as his bottom line for cross-strait talks, without the foundation of which, he said, "the earth will move and the mountains will shake".
The 1992 consensus, meant to facilitate cross-strait engagement, has become a drag on ties with the DPP in power. Yet, it need not be so.
MOVING GOAL POSTS
Through the years, Beijing has displayed flexibility in the way it shifted the goal posts on the meaning of "one China".
In May 2000, Mr Tang Shubei, then vice-chairman of China's semi-official Association for Relations Across the Taiwan Straits, set out a definition of "one China" for cross-strait ties which had three parts: "there is only one China, Taiwan is a part of China, and China's territorial integrity is inviolable". The last part was new, replacing the original that said "the People's Republic of China is the only legitimate government of China" (although this last still holds internationally).
In 2009, then President Hu Jintao, in his six-point proposal to advance cross-strait ties, characterised "one China" as Taiwan and the mainland both belonging to one China. In this description, Taiwan and the mainland were implicitly placed on an equal footing, which the Taiwanese had insisted on, particularly the pro-independence camp.
The Chinese have also shown flexibility in their high-level meetings with the Taiwanese.
In 2005, a historic high-level meeting between the two sides was held in Beijing, with Mr Hu representing the CCP and Mr Lien Chan, a former vice-president of Taiwan and then honorary chairman of the KMT, representing his party.
Ten years later, in November last year, Chinese President Xi Jinping and Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou met in Singapore, not as representatives of their respective political parties, but as leaders of the two sides of the Taiwan Strait. This was a tacit acknowledgement on the part of China of the political entity on the Taiwan side of the strait.
It was little wonder that Taiwan experts were shocked by the meeting. "For so long, the idea of a meeting of political leaders was just beyond the pale. The PRC's position was, 'Taiwan is a local government, we're never going to engage the leaders over there as if they were the equals of our national leaders'," said Professor Shelley Rigger of Davidson College in the United States last month. "So it is quite a breakthrough in the sense that it seems to me the PRC decided not to worry about that any more and to go ahead and have this meeting."
There may well come a time when the Chinese will feel compelled to display such flexibility again and shift its goal posts one more time, to engage Taiwan under DPP rule.
TAIWAN'S CHANGING POLITICS
A key factor that Beijing will have to consider is Taiwan's changing political landscape, particularly its identity politics. This shift has two important implications.
First, the China-friendly KMT is unlikely to bounce back quickly from last month's devastating electoral defeat, when it lost not just the presidency but also its majority in the legislature. The KMT suffers from deep rifts within the party. The DPP could be in power for some time, perhaps even beyond two terms.
Second, the third political force in Taiwan used to be pro-unification, which strengthened the position of the pro-unification camp in Parliament even when the KMT was in opposition. But the new third force now is even more pro-independence than the DPP, effectively further weakening the pro-unification camp.
The fledging New Power Party (NPP), which did well to win five seats at the recent polls to emerge as the third-largest party in Parliament, consists of young Taiwanese who are unsentimental about China and see themselves as purely Taiwanese.
The NPP reflects the changing landscape of Taiwan, in which the majority of people now identify themselves as Taiwanese and not Chinese. The Taiwanese, despite eight years of closer political and economic ties, have drifted even further away from the mainland.
In such a situation, Beijing may find it has little choice but to engage the DPP in talks rather than face a long cross-strait impasse and risk further loss of Taiwanese hearts and minds. One should not preclude the possibility, perhaps not until Ms Tsai's second term or even longer, of Beijing setting aside the 1992 consensus if the DPP will acknowledge that there is one China.
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 12, 2016, with the headline 'Freeze, thaw of cross-strait ties'. Print Edition | Subscribe
We have been experiencing some problems with subscriber log-ins and apologise for the inconvenience caused. Until we resolve the issues, subscribers need not log in to access ST Digital articles. But a log-in is still required for our PDFs.