At a recent meeting of the Democratic Progressive Party’s (DPP) Central Executive Committee it was decided to reinstate the Department of China Affairs, a decision that showed the DPP is making significant progress toward changing its cross-strait policies.
At the start of the 1990s, then-president Lee Teng-hui (李登輝) described cross-strait relations as special state-to-state relations. Although this concept displeased both pro-unification and Taiwanese independence advocates, it remains the most objective and fitting description of the cross-strait situation.
Cross-strait relations have been referred to as state-to-state relations because each side has its own central government and neither has been able to extend its rule to the other side.
There are also three fundamental reasons for referring to relations between Taiwan and China as “special” relations.
First, ethnic Han Chinese make up a majority of the population in both Taiwan and China, both countries share a culture that is similar in many ways and have close blood ties.
Second, in the global system led by the US that emerged after 1990, Taiwan and China have developed a co-dependent economic relationship that is much closer than the standard economic relations between sovereign nations.
Third, because the jurisdiction of Taiwan and China does not extend to the other side of the Taiwan Strait and both the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) and Beijing refuse to give up the ideological viewpoint that there is only “one China,” the two nations have a body of law and systems that relate to the other side, but pertain neither to “their own” country nor to “foreign” countries in the classical sense.
The question then is what other countries make of the “special” reality represented by relations between Taiwan and China.
The unspoken position of the international community is that cross-strait relations are special state-to-state relations. This means that Taiwan is an independent country that is not recognized by international law, while China is a country recognized by international law, but its rule is not viewed by international law as extending to Taiwan.
However, the KMT and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) are in basic agreement, with both refusing to admit that cross-strait relations are relations between two countries, preferring instead to believe that they are special relations within one country.
As a framework for this relationship, the CCP advocates the “one country, two systems” idea, while the KMT sways back and forth between “one China, with each side having its own interpretation” and “one country, two areas.”
In contrast, Taiwanese independence advocates characterize relations between Taiwan and China as relations between two nations and deny any kind of special relationship.
Although in the 1990s the DPP often had very different opinions to Lee — especially when it came to the future and end goals of cross-strait relations, because Lee proposed unification based on the Guidelines for National Unification (國統綱領) while the DPP insisted on Taiwanese independence and sovereignty --— the DPP and Lee had pretty much the same idea when it came to the “status quo” of cross-strait relations and how this “status quo” was characterized by the special state-to-state relationship.
Based on the understanding that the relations between Taiwan and China are special state-to-state relations, Lee established the Straits Exchange Foundation (SEF) to deal with China while the DPP set up its own Department of China Affairs to handle cross-strait affairs.