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Ma, KMT and the new Cross-strait Policy

Dr Jagannath P. Panda was Research Fellow at Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detailed profile.
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  • April 16, 2008

    In a development that is expected to ease tensions across the Taiwan Strait, Taiwanese voted in favour of the Kuomintang (KMT, Nationalist Party) candidate Ma Ying-jeou in the March 22 presidential election. Ma’s victory was unprecedented, as he captured 58 per cent of the total votes cast – a full 16 percentage points more than Frank Hsieh of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP). Given this historic win, among the most urgent ‘cross-strait’ tasks facing Ma Ying-jeou are resumption of dialogue, re-establishment of strong economic ties, and coming to a concrete understanding on the ‘One China’ policy with the Mainland. While Ma’s approach for better cross-strait ties rightly reflects the KMT’s political agenda, it is to be seen whether China will soften its stance on the ‘One China’ policy given Ma’s refutation of ‘reunification’ under this policy.

    Ma’s impressive win gives KMT overall control of Taiwan, especially given that the party had defeated the DPP in parliamentary elections in January 2008. Two important issues that helped KMT gain power were its emphasis upon bettering economic conditions and good governance, along with better cross-strait relations. Under Ma’s leadership, it is assumed that cross-strait ‘political dialogue’, which has remained suspended since 1999, would be resumed. After the election, Ma has already publicly indicated his wish to forge a ‘closer political understanding’ through dialogue with the Mainland. But on the issue of ‘reunification’, he has noted that it can only happen with a ‘democratic China’. However, what makes Ma distinct in Taiwan politics today is his clearly outlined cross-strait policy and intention to pursue peaceful ties with the Mainland without compromising on Taiwan’s identity under the “One China” principle.

    On the critical “One China” principle, Ma has said that the November 1992 meeting in Hong Kong (known as “the 1992 Consensus”) between the Beijing-based quasi-official intermediary Association of Relations across the Taiwan Strait and its Taiwanese counterpart the Straits Exchange Foundation should be interpreted as “One China, different interpretations.” What this means in his view is that both sides accept the “One China” principle, though each is free to interpret what it means. As far as KMT is concerned, “One China means “The Republic of China” (ROC) which is the official name of Taiwan.” Elaborating on this, Ma said:

    “There is a great difference, very divergent views, but nevertheless the two sides could reconcile their differences by accepting the One China in principle… This is the formula with which we all agreed to disagree … the sovereignty issue. We will never able to solve that problem. The only thing we can do is just to manage it so that it wouldn’t erupt into a major crisis.”

    Like Ma, the KMT’s cross-strait agenda rests on “the 1992 consensus,” which was formulated but without a written record. Though time and again officials across the strait have expressed their dissatisfaction at having missed that historic occasion in November 1992 to formulate specific details, it is widely believed that both the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and KMT are increasingly in favour of using this consensus as a compromise platform for the “One China” principle. This is clearly evident in the March 26 statement made by Chinese President Hu Jintao, who stated:

    “It is China’s consistent stand that the Chinese mainland and Taiwan should restore consultation and talks on the basis of ‘the 1992 consensus’, which sees both sides recognise there is only one China, but agree to differ on its definition.”

    Immediately upon learning of the Chinese President’s acknowledgement of “the 1992 consensus,” Ma publicly stated that “you cannot deny that there is progress here.” However, on an earlier occasion, Ma had made it clear that he will not push for talks if “China were to say that there is only ‘one China’, but no room for separate interpretations of both sides…” As a pre-condition for peace talks, he has set two specifics for the mainland: first, China should stop insisting on ‘unification’; and second, it should remove some 1,400 missiles targeted towards the island.

    Pushing for a “common market” across the strait with rules that lift investment limits, Ma has called for a ‘mutual non-denial’ agreement under which both Taiwan and the Mainland can co-exist peacefully. Further, there is much interest in KMT to ink a ‘peace accord’ and agree to military confidence-building measures to avoid potential conflicts across the strait. Promoting the KMT’s agenda across the strait, Ma has diplomatically endorsed the April 29, 2005 joint press communiqué between Chinese President Hu Jintao and former KMT chairman Lien Chan, which includes important schemes like consultation on the issue of Taiwan’s participation in international activities and establishing a platform for periodic party-to-party contacts.

    At the same time, the newly elected president has forsworn the pursuit of independence. His main policy approaches include: (a) promoting a “common market” similar to the European Union’s (b) establishing direct flights and cargo services between Taiwan and China (c) pushing for a pact similar to the Closer Economic Partnership Arrangement (CEPA) that Hong Kong has with China, though not for political purposes.

    In a similar vein, Ma’s electoral campaign was based on “three no’s” – no reunification, no independence and no war. This can be said to largely signal the end of ‘identity politics’ in Taiwan, which the DPP had promoted. Many in Taiwan also believe that Ma’s construct of the “three no’s” is designed to reassure three main audiences: Taiwanese, the Mainland and the United States. These “three no’s” have also to an extent relieved the concerns of those Taiwanese who believed that under KMT rule Taiwan may succumb to the pressure of Chinese sovereignty. In addition, Ma’s supporters claim that his conciliatory approach towards the Mainland does not indicate that it would prevent him from criticising China on sensitive issues. In fact, on the ongoing Tibetan crisis, Ma has said that “he would consider boycotting the Beijing Olympics this summer if the crackdown worsened in Tibet.”

    From China’s perspective, it seems that the emphasis at the moment has shifted from seeking ‘reunification’ to averting Taiwan from pursuing de jure independence. The real challenge for both sides is to move ahead without straining ties through emphasis upon re-unification or independence. Here, China’s approach towards KMT ruled Taiwan is more important. It is feared that Beijing may not soften its stance on the territorial question in the wake of the challenges it is facing in Tibet and Xinjiang. Against this backdrop, it is difficult to foresee how China-Taiwan ties would evolve in the near future. Though, at the moment, Ma’s victory should be quite palatable to the Mainland because of the KMT’s ostensibly anti-independence approach. At a personal level, for Ma, it is a testing time in terms of bringing Beijing to the negotiating table on issues like ‘interpreting the “one China” policy’ vis-à-vis ‘unification’ without disturbing the status quo. While Ma’s approach to defusing the ongoing cross-strait tension is certainly a welcome step, it remains to be seen whether China will take advantage of this approach.