In normal diplomatic relations, an exchange of visits between two countries — even between warring states — be it state visits or private visits by officials at lower levels, is intended to relax tensions and promote beneficial dialogue and exchange.
The difference between normal and abnormal relations lies in whether the diplomatic communication complies with international norms and practices. If one of the parties were to break protocol, this would be seen as an indication of ill intent rather than a sign of peace that both sides hope to convey.
There have been reports that Mainland Affairs Council Minister Wang Yu-chi (王郁琦) and China’s Taiwan Affairs Office Director Zhang Zhijun (張志軍) are to meet in Nanjing, China, in February. One question is whether preparations for the upcoming meeting are in line with international norms.
To answer that question, it is essential to examine two issues.
First, when Zhang was asked whether he would address Wang by his official title, Zhang said: “We shouldn’t pay too much attention to titles.” The more important and unasked question was how Zhang and Wang could enhance the development of cross-strait relations.
Second, a forum on cross-strait media was held recently in Beijing, with representatives of several Taiwanese media organizations brought over to praise the Chinese-controlled forum agenda.
Diplomatic norms for dealing with official rank were established in 1815 at the Vienna Congress.
Although Wang is not stationed in China, he represents Taiwan as a visitor to China.
This is not something that can be taken as lightly as Zhang did when he said: “Taiwan has always placed a lot of importance on this issue.”
Moreover, according to China’s model for diplomatic discussion — which is to first lay down a set of preconditions — the issue of official title is not only a question of status, but also has a practical significance as it forces the other party to accept an underlying political framework. This is not a trivial matter.
Zhang said: “We manage cross-strait relations and cross-strait affairs, and this will be a visit between the two people in charge of these two agencies, which is clearly a good thing for the development of cross-strait relations.”
This summary of the Wang-Zhang meeting is incorrect. Although the meeting is a working visit intended to deal with a specific issue, the practice of diplomacy still requires the use of unambiguous titles and protocols, and is undermined by one party describing the interaction as “the two people in charge.”
This inability to accept diplomatic subtlety and instead perpetuate a Cold War mentality is not a good thing for the normalization of cross-strait relations.
Directing the agenda, China used its old strategy of cooptation and infiltration, which it has used in past interactions with Taiwanese politicians, academics and opposition parties.
This time, the target is Taiwanese media organizations. Chinese People’s Political Consultative Committee Chairman Yu Zhengsheng (俞正聲) has said that “cross-strait media are playing an even more important role in promoting the development of cross-strait peace,” that the foundation for cross-strait exchanges is based on an acknowledgement that “both sides of the Taiwan Strait identify themselves as being ethnically Chinese” and that the realization of this would result in “the two sides of the Taiwan Strait exchanging permanent media liaison offices.”