One would think the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) is as bent on eroding the progress Taiwan has made since former president Lee Teng-hui (李登輝) was in power as it is determined to enter into economic wedlock with China.
When President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) last week again uttered the accursed words “region to region” in describing China-Taiwan relations, there could no longer be any doubt that he had resolved to leave the path that Lee forged more than a decade ago, a path that accommodated the reality of legitimate governments on both sides of the Taiwan Strait.
Lee’s view that relations with China were of a “special state-to-state” nature was a decisive step in renouncing the Republic of China’s claim to one of the world’s largest territories — not to mention its sizable northern neighbor, Mongolia — but over which it had no power whatsoever. Anything that brought rhetoric closer to reality had to be applauded.
This was followed by eight years under president Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁), who scrapped the term “special” and simply spoke of “state to state” relations. Chen’s propensity for rocking the boat fed Beijing’s irritation — which swelled to the tune of around 100 additional missiles per year being deployed across the Strait.
Imagine, then, Beijing’s relief at seeing Taiwan’s rhetoric regress — not just past the “dark days” of Chen, but even beyond Lee’s presidency.
So will the government of the People’s Republic of China care that the president on Sunday also denied Beijing’s legitimacy, and in no subtle terms? Absolutely not.
Ma’s statement that cross-strait relations are “region to region” in nature counters the view of the majority of Taiwanese. From China’s perspective, that’s good news: The public should never be left to reach its own conclusions about the sanctity of territorial integrity.
And while Ma’s denial of the PRC government’s legitimacy was a departure from his promised “mutual non-denial,” Beijing has never subscribed to this quasi-truce, which the KMT has glibly tried to use to assuage public skepticism.
Nothing could look better from where Beijing is sitting than returning to this formula: two governments with control over their own territories, denying each other’s existence. In a war — of words — that consists of claiming sovereignty over each other’s territory, who appears more ridiculous, Taiwan or Beijing?
The strategists in Zhongnanhai are no doubt overjoyed. What Ma and the KMT may intend as sweet nothings meant for Beijing’s ear alone are, after all, being broadcast around the globe. Ma’s affirmation that Taiwan and China are not separate states has an audience in Washington, as well as in Europe and in international bodies. Policymakers more annoyed at problems arising from cross-strait tensions than interested in guarding Taiwan’s democracy will happily digest this tidbit — no doubt hoping for seconds.
China, meanwhile, will hardly need to find kindling for its arguments if Taiwan persists in handing it olive branches to burn. To add to Beijing’s optimism, the past six months of “detente” — achieved almost entirely on its terms — follow on the heels of two miserably unsuccessful referendums on UN membership that had little effect other than to cast doubt on the resolve of the majority of Taiwanese who do not want unification.