With the venue besieged by crowds mobilized by the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), the historic meeting between President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) and Association for Relations Across the Taiwan Strait (ARATS) Chairman Chen Yunlin (陳雲林) was cut to just five minutes from the scheduled 40. The government had hoped the first-ever talks on Taiwanese soil between Chen and Straits Exchange Foundation (SEF) Chairman Chiang Pin-kung (江丙坤) would ensure continued peaceful relations across the Strait and prepare the way for economic recovery by relaxing and deregulating cross-strait transport, trade and business links.
They also hoped to tag on to the so-called “1992 consensus” of “one China with each side having its own interpretation” the principle of “mutual non-denial,” which would be beneficial to Taiwan’s sovereignty and dignity.
The opposition parties, meanwhile, wanted to give China a demonstration of Taiwan’s democratic pluralism and demand that Beijing pay compensation for losses caused by contaminated food and shoddy products. Above all, they wanted China and the international community to pay attention to the opposition parties and social forces, who have for a long time been calling for “one China, one Taiwan.” The scenario was one where the government, opposition and China could all be winners.
Now it can only be said that, while China’s gains and losses were about equal, Taiwan’s government and opposition both lost.
The government saw an opportunity in China’s desire not to see a return to power of pro-independence forces in Taiwan and a chance for the government of President Hu Jintao (胡錦濤) and Premier Wen Jiabao (溫家寶) to show more flexibility as the country gains strength and confidence. Ma’s government wanted to use this round of talks to gain economic and other benefits for Taiwan. Fewer belligerent and threatening words have been heard from China since Hu fully took over the reins of government, except for the enactment of the Anti-Secession Law in 2005 and Beijing’s routine maneuverers against Taiwan’s attempts to join the UN each September.
Since the beginning of this year, there have even been rumors circulating that China is considering dismantling or withdrawing some of the missiles it has aimed at Taiwan and is seeking ways for Taiwan to participate in the World Health Authority, ASEAN and other international bodies.
Xinhua news agency recently published a positive assessment of the Ma government’s proposal for a diplomatic truce. The article severely criticized a number of unnamed small countries for their brazen attempts to extort aid money from Beijing in return for establishing or maintaining diplomatic relations with China rather than Taiwan. It would be better, Xinhua suggested, for China and Taiwan to have a tacit agreement to close the door to such demanding little countries.
Even the opposition parties had to admit that Chen was rather low key during his trip. Previously when talks were held in China, Hong Kong and Macau, the then (DPP government had no problem in allowing the SEF to accept China’s invitation to attend the talks. One might expect them, therefore, to have approached last week’s talks with the same calm and collected attitude.
However, the meeting became a battleground for the government and opposition to squabble about what titles the two sides should use to address one another and whether and where the national flag should be displayed.
The jostling by DPP supporters of ARATS Vice Chairman Zhang Mingqing (張銘清) and their attempts to besiege the conference venues were in some way reminiscent of the Siege of Peking during the Boxer Rebellion, but the heroic aura of the Boxers was not quite there.
Envoys of all major Taiwanese parties have been crossing the bamboo curtain for more than a decade with their heads held high, but when Zhang and Chen visited Taiwan they were treated in a manner that betrayed Taiwan’s lack of self-esteem.
Let us take a brief look at the gains and losses of these talks. Since the US broke off diplomatic relations with Taiwan in 1979, the de jure status of the Republic of China (ROC) on Taiwan has been gradually eroded as its diplomatic allies dwindle, but the status and dignity of its presidents has not been greatly affected. On the economic front, meanwhile, China has gained a good return for little outlay. In relaxing or removing restrictions on trade and business, the government in Beijing is looking to reap long-term benefits, and has been content to passively observe the Taiwan’s words and actions.
On this occasion, however, Chen was confronted with the problem of how to address Taiwan’s head of state and Cabinet ministers when he met them. The question of what national symbols would be on display became a hot issue. Faced with protests that showed a definite segment of the public is in favor of Taiwan independence, Chen had to respond with a forced smile instead of the usual haughty attitude of a Chinese Communist Party official. Relative to the past decade or so, this would appear to be a step forward for Taiwan with respect to “mutual non-denial.”
However, the government again showed its weakness by allowing itself to get pinned down on the insubstantial question of whether Chen would address Ma and his ministers by their official titles, and it wavered on how to deal with legal protests and illegal provocations. With the hosts under pressure on issues of protocol, Beijing was able to play its cards by conceding to address Taiwanese officials by their proper titles of “Mr. Speaker” and “Minister,” and bargain on the issue of whether Chen would meet with Ma. The protests provided ARATS with a pretext for canceling some potentially sensitive meetings and visits.
If Chen shared the courage and insight of his deputy Zhang, he would have called short the visit with a promise that China would carry out its pledges. In that case, Taiwan would have been the all-out loser.
Another factor to consider is the ongoing effort of the US, China and Japan to seek detente, and the worldwide wave of support for US president-elect Barack Obama, motivated as it is by the desire for peace. In this context, international media expressed hopes for a successful SEF-ARATS meeting. Zhang and Chen’s visits were viewed as a matter of international relations, which in itself was a good thing for Taiwan’s dignity. In the event, however, international media reported how Zhang was “knocked to the ground.” The treatment meted out to Zhang tarnished the image of Taiwan’s democracy and conversely served to highlight Beijing’s soft offensive strategy.
How did we miss these opportunities and where did we go wrong? The DPP must bear a considerable part of the blame.
Taiwan is an island society that has been colonized in turn by several powers and whose economy depends heavily on foreign trade. It must step warily among the sometimes clashing titans of Europe, the US, Japan and China. China, for its part, has long since infiltrated Taiwan’s commercial sector and its ruling and opposition political forces, and it knows how to use its connections. When in government, the DPP was only willing or able to passively “manage” the situation. Its dream of blockading China was a non-starter, and it let slip the opportunity of using Taiwan’s “pro-localization” forces to win concessions from China. Instead, the DPP became all the more dependent on its habit of using Chinese repression to garner dignity and actively seeking out such repression for the sake of winning sympathy votes.
The DPP failed to organize its supporters for last week’s protests, which got out of control. The clashes have not won the sympathy of friendly countries, and have considerably weakened Taiwan and its supporters in any future dealings with China. The Chinese side now has more room for maneuver on the issues of the “1992 consensus” and “mutual non-denial.”
Taiwan lost a lot of dignity for the sake of one or two days of excitement.
Those in government, for their part, are all the more obliged to make clear where the dignity and sovereignty of the ROC really lie. It is not enough to just keep up the passive stance of refusing to be ruled by the People’s Republic of China. The government should quit pandering to business interests by covering up for their exploitation of Chinese workers. Nor is it enough for the government to beg for a diplomatic truce or spend a lot of energy on tedious issues about flags and titles.
While China is full of confidence in its hard power, when it comes to soft power, its boasting cannot conceal its weaknesses. Taiwan could put its own strong points to the best advantage by opening a psychological counteroffensive and engaging in peaceful rivalry with China on such issues as food safety, welfare, charity, democracy and plurality. Such a strategy would gain the support of disparate forces within Taiwan and help it maintain a dynamic equilibrium with the US, China and Japan.
This is the only way to prevent Taiwan’s identity and the sovereignty of the ROC from being destroyed by internal strife, and it is the only way to win back the dignity that has been lost.
Chang Teng-chi is an assistant professor at the Institute of Strategic and International Affairs Studies at National Chung Cheng University.
TRANSLATED BY JULIAN CLEGG
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