Written by Qi Dongtao.
The dynamics of cross-Strait relations in 2019 were revealed by Taiwan and mainland China’s top leaders’ speeches in the first two days of 2019. In her New Year speech on 1 January, Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen emphasised her determination and clarified her administration’s strategies for defending Taiwan against China’s increasing efforts for unification. The very next day on 2 January, in his speech commemorating the 40th anniversary of issuing the Message to Compatriots in Taiwan, China’s President Xi Jinping expressed his confidence and eagerness – along with proposing a number of strategies – for promoting unification with Taiwan.
Several hours later, Tsai responded to Xi’s speech in a press conference by completely rejecting his proposals, including the 1992 Consensus – or more specifically, the one-China principle – as the political foundation for current cross-Strait official relations, and the One Country, Two Systems policy as the model for future unification.
It is clear from this indirect conversation between the two leaders that cross-Strait relations in 2019 will mainly be characterised by conflict between China’s promotion and Taiwan’s rejection of unification. Two additional factors, namely Taiwan’s upcoming presidential and legislative elections in January 2020 and the increasing efforts of US President Trump’s administration to contain China, will complicate this conflict and bring more uncertainty to cross-Strait relations in 2019.
Public opinion in Taiwan is changing, as Taiwanese nationalism declines and voters become more independent. There is an increasingly more realistic public perception of Taiwan’s democracy, partly as a result of these trends. The recent electoral debacle of President Tsai’s Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) in the 2018 nine-in-one local elections is therefore the most relevant context for understanding the two leaders’ speeches.
Encouraged by these favourable conditions, President Xi seems to believe that China’s carrot and stick strategy has been effective in dividing Taiwan, which puts China in an unusually advantageous position – not only to repress the forces for independence, but also to promote unification. His speech may be viewed as an announcement of the advent of the new pro-unification era, which means Beijing will now be more proactive and determined in pushing cross-Strait relations towards unification.
The most important pro-unification strategy implicit in Xi’s speech is his clarification/re-definition of the 1992 Consensus. Previously, the Chinese government’s official definition of the Consensus was the one-China principle, while the definition of Taiwan’s former ruling party, the Kuomintang (KMT), was ‘one China, different interpretations’. Because both sides accepted ‘one China’ as the common ground, they were able to maintain good relations.
However, the government in Beijing has gradually realised that the KMT was taking advantage of the Consensus by gaining benefits from good cross-Strait relations without working towards unification. Xi’s speech clarifies that the Consensus is not only about the one-China principle, but also that the two sides need to dedicate themselves to unification. In other words, accepting the Consensus means, on the one hand, affirming that mainland China and Taiwan belong to one China, and on the other, working together with the mainland for unification. This is a pre-emptive strategy aimed mainly at whichever party is in power in Taiwan after the 2020 presidential election.
Another important pro-unification strategy proposed by Xi is to hold cross-Strait democratic consultations around unification, at which any anti-independence force from Taiwan will be welcome to participate. Beijing has consistently tried – and will try even harder this year – to pass over the DPP administration and connect directly with Taiwanese society directly. The so-called cross-Strait democratic consultation seems an innovative way to try to establish this direct connection. If the consultation process is successful in involving true representation from a variety of fields in Taiwan, then it may likewise be successful in pushing public opinion in Taiwan to be more favourable towards China. However, it is also possible that if the consultation process is organised unwisely, it could lead to a strong backlash against China by Taiwanese society.
About five hours after Xi Jinping’s speech, President Tsai told the public that Taiwan could not accept the 1992 Consensus because it tried to impose ‘One Country, Two Systems’ on Taiwan, making Taiwan another Hong Kong, which had been rejected by most Taiwanese as an unacceptable model. Furthermore, she believes that Xi’s pro-unification speech totally justifies her argument for defending Taiwan’s sovereignty and democracy against the rising threat from China. Tsai’s quick and clear response has won back many pro-independence supporters that the DPP had lost during the local elections.
Tsai argues that China is a serious threat not only to Taiwan, but also to the region as a whole, and indeed the global democratic camp. Therefore she is trying to garner both domestic and international support, especially from the Trump Administration. The latter’s increasing efforts to contain China provides a good opportunity for Tsai to collaborate with the US to improve her popularity in Taiwan. China will surely be unhappy with Taiwan-US collaboration, but will have to be very cautious in punishing Taiwan for it, as any punishment might push more Taiwanese to vote for the DPP in the 2020 elections.
Qi Dongtao is a Research Fellow in the East Asian Institute of the National University of Singapore, and is the author of The Taiwan Independence Movement In and Out of Power (World Scientific Publishing, 2016). Image credit: CC by the Office of the President, Republic of China (Taiwan)