On Oct. 10, President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) delivered his final Double Ten National Day speech as the nation’s leader. Looking forward to the presidential and legislative elections in January, which could bring important changes for the first time in eight years, the US and others have critical interests in the implications of Taiwan’s initiatives for security, prosperity and freedom.
While the title of Ma’s speech was “Taiwan’s Future: Sustaining Peace and Prosperity,” he actually spent the most time looking backward to review his administration’s and party’s record over the past seven years, typical of a Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) stalwart. He ended with a defense of his legacy, hinged on the divisive [so-called] “1992 consensus” as critical for cross-strait peace, warning that “there will be turmoil in the Taiwan Strait” if a future leader “opposes” it.
Ma did not offer any initiatives, not even for a step toward participation in the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), despite its conclusion by 12 nations earlier this month. As an outgoing president not running for office, Ma could be taking tough steps for Taiwan’s greater inclusion in the global economy.
Ma only alluded to the development, which was undertaken, not by him, but by Taiwan-centric Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) Chairperson and presidential candidate Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文). She attended the presidential “Double Ten” ceremony in Taipei for the first time in the past seven years. By taking this long-awaited step, the DPP gave a sign of support for sustaining the “status quo” under the rubric of the Republic of China (ROC).
The DPP is conveying the message that, if it wins the presidential election, its governance would be different from the eight-year administration of former president Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁), whose cross-strait policies were suspected of inching Taiwan toward de jure independence. Tsai showed up to signal that she is not “Chen version 2.0.”
Nonetheless, Ma used his final Double Ten National Day speech to raise the specter of a crisis without the “1992 consensus.”
Ma revealed his attitude, which contrasts with the more Taiwan-centric public and opposition. Although Ma first discussed the “Taiwan consensus” of a “status quo” of “no unification, no independence and no use of force,” he did not call that the “most important” factor, despite 80 percent of Taiwanese expressing support for it. He reserved as “most important” his second notion, the “1992 consensus” of “one China, respective interpretations,” reached between the KMT and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), which Ma admitted only had the support of 50 percent of Taiwanese.
Tsai responded that the public will decide the direction of the next administration. Many DPP supporters deny the expression and existence of the “1992 consensus.”
In the decades-long debate to discern the mysterious meaning of “one China,” Ma tries to elevate the “1992 consensus” into a catechism of perceived fundamental truths, if not a canon of Sino-centric sacred scripture. Doubting Thomases call it fake, refuting even its title.
First, critics of the “1992 consensus” are correct that there was no formal agreement to resolve the differences over sovereignty between the ROC and People’s Republic of China (PRC). The two sides’ fundamental fight remains. They refuse to recognize the reality of each other’s existence. The impasse remains irreconcilable — with the threat of PRC coercion or force to “unify” Taiwan into the motherland’s clutch — and contrasts with the German model.
In the German model of “one Germany, two states” at the time, West Germany and East Germany concluded their Basic Treaty on Dec. 21, 1972, which recognized two German states in a special relationship.
A meeting for initial working-level contact between the Straits Exchange Foundation (SEF) and Beijing’s Association for Relations Across the Taiwan Straits (ARATS) took place in Hong Kong in 1992. Through these quasi-official agencies, the two sides — lacking a relationship — were able to talk by exchanging faxes, and agreed to disagree on the meaning of “one China,” namely, “PRC” for Beijing and “ROC” for Taipei. This understanding was not even a joint text.
According to the SEF, on Nov. 3 a “responsible person” of ARATS said that it was willing to respect and accept the foundation’s proposal that each side “verbally states” its respective principles on “one China.” For years, this expedient rhetorical cover to allow talks without political resolution was simply called “one China, different, or respective, interpretations.”
Second, critics are correct that only later, in 2000, KMT politician Su Chi (蘇起) concocted the term of “consensus,” which the KMT then championed in a semantic crusade. In 2002, the KMT’s think tank published Su’s book entitled The Historical Record of the Consensus of “One China, Different Interpretations.”
Third, critics are correct that any agreement to disagree was reached in 1992 before full political liberalization. The KMT government was not a democratically elected representative to negotiate with the CCP.
Fourth, critics are correct about the PRC’s questionable acceptance of a “consensus.” Beijing officials often cite the “1992 consensus” without explicitly endorsing “one China, different interpretations.” In Beijing’s orthodoxy, the PRC is the only representative of China.
Fifth, critics are correct to dispute Ma’s claim of the US’ acceptance of the “consensus.” On Aug. 28, 2001, then-American Institute in Taiwan (AIT) director Raymond Burghardt downplayed any “consensus,” pointing out that “the negotiators decided to put aside the intractable political issues concerning sovereignty and the definition of one China in order to make progress on practical issues.”
Moreover, in an interview reported by the Chinese-language United Daily News on Dec. 23, 2010, Ma claimed that the DPP was the only one of four groups — the ROC, the “mainland” and the US being the other three — not to accept the “1992 consensus.” However, the US Department of State told the Liberty Times (the Taipei Times’ sister newspaper) on Dec. 28, , that “questions relating to establishing the basis for dialogue between Taiwan and the People’s Republic of China are matters for the two parties to resolve. The US takes no position on the substance of such questions. Our interest is that any resolution of cross-strait issues be peaceful.”
The diametrically opposing views of believers and doubters can be reconciled to sustain stability that is significant for the US and other foreign interests and for Taiwan. The setup for talks was meant to be vague. That expedient exchange of faxes was a way to continue technical talks about pragmatic problems, not a holy covenant. Su rephrased “one China, different interpretations” to offer even more ambiguous jargon. The controversial characters of “one China” were not explicit in the new expression, presenting it as palatable to more people. Just like UN Resolution 2758 in 1971 that installed the PRC at the UN, that argument-avoidance in 1992 did not settle Taiwan’s status.
As former US president Abraham Lincoln said, quoting the Bible: “A house divided against itself cannot stand.” Leaders strive for solidarity and stability. The KMT could shift from working against domestic groups to working on convergence for the nation’s survival. The DPP could be creative in citing a common creed to sustain stability and security. The KMT could seek a real consensus with more Taiwanese — especially young people — instead of hypocritically demanding clarity and ganging up with the CCP to wield a contrived political weapon against opposition at home.
The DPP could overlook a semantic quarrel, and be reasonable and realistic, rather than rigid.
In his “national day” speech in October 2004, Chen suggested that the “1992 meeting” be the basis to resume cross-strait talks. Convening a meeting in July 2013 on the “1992 consensus” that even included Su, the DPP signaled a nuanced shift that it is willing to at least deal with the concept.
Taiwan’s “one China, different interpretations,” or the “1992 consensus,” can stay in a strategy of expedient ambiguity with enough convergence to sustain stability and the “status quo.” Initiated by realists like [former US secretary of state] Henry Kissinger, US policy on “one China” concerning Taiwan offers an example. The bible of the “one China” policy is the Taiwan Relations Act (TRA) of 1979, US Public Law 96-8.
The “sacred texts” also include three US-PRC joint communiques. In a meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平) at the White House on Sept. 25, US President Barack Obama reiterated a strong commitment to the US’ “one China” policy based on the Three Joint Communiques and the TRA, despite Beijing’s opposition to the TRA. Obama did not recite a belief held dearly by Taiwan since 1982, namely, the “six assurances.”
US policy is not only one of ambiguity, such as “acknowledging” the “Chinese position” of “one China,” with Taiwan as a part of it. The policy is also based on Taiwan’s unsettled status. Passed by then-AIT director James Lilley in July 1982 on a plain piece of paper without any signature and never published as the “six assurances,” then-US president Ronald Reagan conveyed principles to Taipei during negotiations of the Aug. 17, 1982 joint communique with Beijing.
To signal that Taiwan was not abandoned, Washington noted that it had not agreed to set a date for ending arms sales to Taiwan; has not agreed to hold prior consultations with the PRC on arms sales to Taiwan; will not play any mediation role between Taipei and Beijing; has not agreed to revise the TRA; has not altered its position regarding sovereignty over Taiwan; and will not exert pressure on Taiwan to negotiate with the PRC.
While Taipei has interpreted these points in that context as promises that bind US policy indefinitely, successive US presidents have not elevated the “six assurances” to the status of the TRA or the Three Joint Communiques. Unless elicited by the US Congress, Department of State officials do not routinely reaffirm the “six assurances” or reiterate the points as a complete creed. They are not commandments carved in stone. Thus, it was significant when then-US assistant secretary of state Kurt Campbell testified at a hearing of the US House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee in October 2011 and reaffirmed that the “Taiwan Relations Act plus the so-called six assurances and Three Communiques form the foundation of our overall approach.”
There was tension at a hearing of the US Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee on East Asian and Pacific Affairs in April last year, when in response to Senator Marco Rubio, US Assistant Secretary of State Daniel Russel did not clearly reaffirm the “six assurances” until afterward.
Taiwan has pushed to elevate the “six assurances” to become a sacred text. The US has remained principled, but not constrained, a stance designed to protect its own interests. Taiwan’s various leaders can deal with the contrived “1992 consensus” by leaving the old stepping stone in the path of cross-strait contacts and not pontificating about a vague, verbal code for discord.
Shirley Kan recently retired from working for the US Congress’ Congressional Research Service. This commentary is her personal analysis.
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