Written by Joshua Bernard B. Espeña and Chelsea Anne A. Uy Bomping.
Image credit: 1011109馬英九總統出席「九二共識」20週年學術研討會 by 總統府/Flickr, license CC BY 2.0
The 1992 Consensus has framed the status quo of the Cross-Strait relationship for decades. However, more recently, rising nationalism and geopolitical developments have expedited the erosion of the consensus. Moreover, the United States’ (US) commitment to Taiwan is ambiguous, despite the Trump administration adopting a more hardline stance against China. These factors complicate Taiwan’s quest for membership in the United Nations (UN), and add to doubts as to whether the consensus is still a source of stability in the Cross-Strait relationship.
The 1992 Consensus
The 1992 Consensus or the “One China Principle” framed the Cross-Strait relationship for nearly 30 years. The agreement highlighted that there is only one legitimate governing body of China, while it tacitly accommodated disagreement in relation to the identity of that governing body. It has served as the benchmark for defining the status quo between Beijing and Taipei. This status quo in the Cross-strait is significant because it provides stability – this status quo demarcates the boundaries within which Taiwan can operate without raising the threat of military action from China, and thus mitigates the prospect that Taiwan’s domestic politics will provoke Beijing. Accordingly, it has allowed both sides to sustain a degree of trust and engage in political and economic interaction. However, changes in the geopolitical environment, frictions under the current leadership, and a growing sense of nationalism in China and self-identification/localism in Taiwan now raise doubts about the purpose and sustainability of the 1992 Consensus.
Erosion of the 1992 Consensus
Xi’s strongly nationalistic approach to the Taiwan ‘problem’ is being driven by his insecurities on the issues of regime legitimacy and survival. To solidify its place in the world, China has undertaken diplomatic and economic measures to enhance its image. In its own backyard, China has sworn never to let others violate its sovereignty and territorial integrity as foreign powers did in the 19th Century. In light of this, even the stance on Taiwan’s reunification has hardened under Xi, who is taking a tougher stance to enforce a unilateral view on the 1992 Consensus.
The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has undergone massive reforms under Xi. As a result, the PLA’s ground force, navy, airforce, and rocket force have increased their interoperability, training, and exercises in ways that better prepare them for Taiwan reunification scenarios. In terms of command and control, Xi has restructured the Chinese Military Commission (CMC) to ensure political loyalty among PLA officers. China’s 2019 National Defence White Paper called out so-called separatist hawks in Taiwan, reaffirming China’s right to use force to ‘retain’ Taiwan if the need arises.
However, the PLA is not expected to become a fully mechanized defense force until 2035. Moreover, time is not on Xi’s side. Recent developments may force Xi’s hand to move early to resolve the Taiwan ‘problem.’ Insecurity, in this regard, may fuel his drive for an invasion.
Tsai-Ing Wen was first elected as Taiwan’s president in a landslide victory in May 2016. Since her inauguration, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has accused Tsai of refusing to adhere to the 1992 Consensus. In 2006, former Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) Legislator Su Chi acknowledged that the term ‘1992 Consensus’ was a made-up term. In line with this view, Tsai’s Democratic People’s Party (DPP) emphatically rejects the existence of the consensus.
On January 02, 2020, Xi asserted that Taiwan must be reunified with China must and proposed a “one country, two systems model” for Taipei. In response, Tsai delivered a speech rejecting China’s proposal and emphasising that China must accept the existence of a democratic Taiwan. Tsai reinforced her commitment to strengthening Taiwan’s defense capabilities and future combat capacity as outlined in the 2019 National Defense Report.
US Policy in Indo-Pacific
The US regards Taiwan’s existence as a contributing factor to retaining regional peace and stability. The US Congress passed the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act (TRA) so that Taipei can purchase weapons from the United States and maintain economic links with Washington. According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, the US has supplied more than one-third of Taiwan’s weapons imports. However, the TRA is not a security treaty. Furthermore, the US has not made an official position regarding the 1992 Consensus.
Yet since becoming US president in 2017, Donald Trump has adopted a tougher stance on China. In the government’s 2017 National Security Strategy and 2018 National Defense Strategy, the Trump administration dubbed China as a revisionist power and a threat to a free and open world.
In the US Department of Defense (DOD) Indo-Pacific Strategy Report, the US has officially elevated Taiwan’s status as a partner through growing defense sales and stronger rhetoric. In a COVID-19 pandemic-stricken world, Washington has also endorsed Taipei’s participation in the World Health Organization (WHO), which Beijing is working to prevent. On July 10, US Health Secretary Alex Azar visited Taiwan to sign a Memorandum of Understanding on intensifying global health cooperation between Washington and Taipei. This visit becomes the highest-level official state visit since 1979.
The US position is likely emboldening Tsai to demand Xi acknowledge the status quo in relation to China and Taiwan’s coexistence as autonomous sovereign entities. However, there is still skepticism regarding Washington’s future commitment to Taiwan, and specifically in relation to its position on the said consensus. Taiwan hoped to join the US Navy-led Rim of the Pacific Exercise (RIMPAC) that kicked off on August 17 2020. However, Washington’s decision to exclude Taipei indicates that while the US has been bolstering its partnership with Taiwan, it does so with caution so as to avoid crossing swords with China. Moreover, the 2020 US elections imcreases the uncertainty, if not anxiety, for Taiwan. While it is too early to tell about the level of support a Biden administration will direct towards Taiwan, Biden is undoubtedly committed to resetting everything that Trump has built in the past years. With Tsai in power for her second term, it is likely that the 1992 Consensus will not be used by Taiwan as a bargaining chip.
Stakes for UN Membership
The drama over Taiwan’s ‘divorce’ in relation to the 1992 Consensus reflects the need to garner a more sustainable form of national consensus. So far, only the DPP views Taiwan as independent and it still needs wide electoral support across the island over the next few decades to fully realise its aspiration of making this an uncontested truth. This effort requires defeating pro-Consensus KMT candidates at every turn. Without the 1992 Consensus, Taiwan may gain UN membership. But entry to the UN may require strong diplomatic and strategic support from the US and its allies/ This is easier said than done, and will likely prompt a backlash from Beijing, taking the future of the cross-straits relationship into more unsettled territory.
The points discussed above reveal how Taiwan’s bid for UN membership may proceed without a “consensus” in relation to the existence and/or binding power of the 1992 Consensus. In the view of Xi, the DPP has eroded the trust needed for there to be any hope of peaceful reunification. For Tsai, the CCP has developed a penchant for manipulation and coercion. Moreover, American’s evolving strategic calculus continues to add another layer of complexity. As for Taiwan’s UN membership, the stability and sustainability of domestic and external support are factors that must be considered. Gaining membership will most likely increase frictions in the already rough relationship between Beijing and Taipei. Adopting a half-glass empty perspective, the 1992 Consensus no longer enjoys a premium role as a foundation for Cross-Strait cooperation. More optimistically, China and Taiwan may negotiate another consensus. But that is a question for another day.
Disclaimer: The views of the authors do not reflect the views of their affiliated offices. All views are entirely their own and for the purpose of academic debate only.
Joshua Bernard B. Espeña is a defense analyst in the Office for Strategic Studies and Strategy Management of the Armed Forces of the Philippines. He is currently pursuing his Master’s degree in International Studies at the University of the Philippines, Diliman. He writes on the Great Power Politics of the Indo-Pacific, ASEAN Studies, and Philippine Strategic Culture. He can be reached at LinkedIn.
Chelsea Anne A Uy Bomping is a researcher with interests in the South China Sea, Southeast Asia Affairs, and Cross-Strait Relations. She is currently pursuing her masters in political science at De La Salle University.
This article is part of a special issue on Taiwan’s application to enter the United Nations.