The first test of the cross-strait understanding that many call the so-called “1992 consensus,” by which Taipei and Beijing agreed vaguely (never in writing) to a formula of “one China, different interpretations,” came on Nov. 21, 1993, at the Seattle APEC leaders summit. If there ever had been a “consensus” on the matter, it disappeared that day.
On that day in Seattle, Taiwan articulated its “interpretation” of “one China.” Then-minister of economic affairs Chiang Pin-kung (江丙坤), reading from a prepared text, explained to an anxious audience of Taiwanese journalists the interpretation:
“‘China’ is a historical, geographic and cultural term and Taiwan is part of China as is the China Mainland. ‘China’ is not ‘the People’s Republic of China [PRC],’ nor is Taiwan a part or a province thereof. Accordingly, within the immanence of a historical, geographical and cultural ‘one China,’ the ROC [Republic of China] and the PRC are two independent and mutually non-subordinate sovereign nations, a fact that no one may deny or ignore.”
This, Chiang said, was his nation’s “‘one China’ oriented, interim two China’s policy.”
Although Chiang was uncomfortable making such a bold declaration, circumstances had forced his hand.
Earlier that same day, then-Chinese president Jiang Zemin (江澤民) when asked about the presence of a Taipei delegation representing then-president Lee Teng-hui (李登輝) at APEC, said that: “Taiwan is a province of the People’s Republic of China.”
This was Beijing’s official “interpretation” of “one China,” which had been explicated three months earlier no less than five times in an official Beijing White Paper on Aug. 30, 1993, entitled The Taiwan Question and Reunification of China. Not even a year had passed since the alleged “consensus” had been reached.
It was no accident that the White Paper had been published the same day that a delegation from the Straits Exchange Foundation arrived in Beijing to negotiate technical issues of cross-strait accommodations. Nor was it a surprise when the document’s uncompromising language prompted Taiwanese officials to cancel their mission and immediately leave Beijing.
Although the Chinese position that “Taiwan is a province of the PRC” was long-established in China’s catechism, Taipei had been led to believe that, under the 1992 “understanding,” neither side would force its “interpretation” upon the other.
“Understanding” or not, Beijing had no intention of permitting Taiwan equal treatment.
Stung by the Aug. 30 White Paper’s insult to Taiwan’s prestige, compounded by the US snub at APEC, Lee had instructed his representatives at APEC to be ready to refute any further assault on Taiwan’s legitimacy.
If Jiang were to insist that Taiwan was subordinate to Beijing, the Taiwanese delegation was to assert with equal determination that Taiwan was not.
Lee’s representatives did up the ante by averring that Taiwan and China are “independent and mutually non-subordinate sovereign nations.”
Certainly, Taipei’s “interpretation” was appropriate within the rubric of “one China, different interpretations.” Taipei could tolerate Beijing’s “interpretation” that “there is ‘one China’ and Taiwan is a part of the People’s Republic of China,” if likewise Beijing tolerated Taipei’s interpretation that “there is one historical, geographical and cultural China, and the ROC and PRC are two independent, mutually non-subordinate and sovereign nations.”
While Beijing’s “one China” principle might have once been acceptable to Taipei, so long as Beijing acquiesced to Taipei’s “different interpretations,” principal the summit proved that a half-consensus was no consensus.
Since then, successive governments have articulated similar interpretations of Taiwan’s conflicted identity.
Lee characterized the cross-strait dynamic as “a special nation-to-nation relationship,” while former president Chen Shui-bian’s (陳水扁) view was “one nation on each side” of the Taiwan Strait.
In August 1992, then-Mainland Affairs Council vice chairman Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) insisted on “the need to emphasize the equality between the two political entities on the two sides of the Strait” and was careful during his 2008 to 2012 presidential tenure not to undermine that position.
President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) has been a key player in cross-strait policy since the 1990s, and has an acute comprehension of the international dilemma and the economic, political, legal and diplomatic tightropes now facing Taiwan.
Tsai is both constitutionally and diplomatically constrained from reopening the matter for official debate. Taiwan and its allies should remind Beijing that, whatever incorporeal “one China consensus” was reached, it encompassed two independent, non-subordinate and sovereign “interpretations.”
John J. Tkacik, a retired US foreign service officer who served in Taipei and Beijing, is director of the Future Asia Project at the International Assessment and Strategy Center in Alexandria, Virginia.
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