China’s detention of Taiwanese human rights advocate Lee Ming-che (李明哲) can be viewed as a blunt retaliation against Taiwan’s detention early last month of Chinese former student Zhou Hongxu (周泓旭) on suspicion of recruiting officials for a spy ring. Due to the lack of direct communication and mounting misperceptions on both sides, relations across the Taiwan Strait have gradually headed into a vicious spiral.
Since President Tsai Ing-wen’s (蔡英文) inauguration in May last year, relations between Taiwan and China have plunged into a deep quagmire of “cold peace,” distinct from the “warm peace” during former president Ma Ying-jeou’s (馬英九) terms.
From Beijing’s perspective, this dramatic conversion can be attributed to the new administration’s refusal to recognize the so-called “1992 consensus,” which is highly regarded by Beijing as the foundation of maintaining peaceful cross-strait relations.
From Taipei’s viewpoint, with the latest mandate of the people, the Tsai administration has few reasons to uphold the “flawed and fabricated” consensus between the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) and the Chinese Communist Party.
Since Taiwanese broadly believe that cross-strait relations during the Ma administration resulted in overdependence on China, it was necessary for the Tsai administration to adjust its China policy in response to the expectations of its electorate.
Due to different understanding of each other’s behavior, political friction between Taipei and Beijing becomes inevitable. Irrefutably, lack of mutual trust between political leaders on the two sides has made relations increasingly fragile. Any reckless rhetoric and policies by one side might easily be misinterpreted as malicious and hostile behavior by the other.
Since peaceful, stable and sustainable relations are beneficial for both sides, leaders must sagaciously manage any flash points of conflict, while preventing any remarks and policies that could be perceived as provocative in the eyes of the other.
Most importantly, political leaders in Taipei and Beijing should devote more efforts toward facilitating empathic understanding, while doing their best to minimize the risks of foolhardy policies due to misperception of their counterpart’s behaviors. After all, the accumulation of misperceptions would eventually lead to an irreversible self-fulfilling prophecy, which would not only distort decisionmakers’ comprehension of their counterpart’s intentions, but could also trigger catastrophic consequences that neither side wants.
The hazards afforded by misperceptions are especially pervasive and precarious in today’s delicate relations. Its crucial effect lies in its ability to twist or conceal reality to mislead political leaders into making flawed decisions.
To Beijing, the most conspicuous obstruction is Tsai’s refusal to acknowledge the “1992 consensus.” However, it might merely be a verbal excuse. Many Taiwan experts in Beijing might have subjectively assumed that Tsai is an ingrained proponent of Taiwanese independence and might subconsciously hold pessimistic prospects about the next four years.
Tsai’s downplaying of the “1992 consensus” might fit into Beijing’s existing assumption that she is a low-profile, but determined adherent to independence. The worst consequence of this self-fulfilling prophecy is its influence on the distortion and screening of undesirable facts that shape reality in accordance with anticipated outcomes.
When Beijing holds arbitrary prejudice toward Tsai, any of her administration’s policies are likely to be politicized through the tainted lens of the ideological microscope. Any policies would be interpreted as malevolent plots with a hidden political agenda. Therefore, the prevalence of biased misinterpretations and deep-rooted prejudices would obscure any gestures of goodwill and lead to the negligence of conciliatory opportunities.
For instance, Tsai has repeatedly asserted her intention of maintaining the “status quo” and devoted herself to constructing “consistent, sustainable and predictable” cross-strait development, implying that Taiwan’s government promises not to pursue any radical political initiatives that could dramatically overturn the “status quo” during her term.
This political statement toward Beijing is viewed by most experts as fairly moderate, but weak by pro-independence advocates. Compared with former president Chen Shui-bian’s (陳水扁) fickleness and unpredictability, the Tsai administration’s China policy is prudent, moderate and consistent.
In practice, the Tsai administration has borne enormous pressure from her supporters and deliberately excluded political fundamentalists from taking important positions in the Cabinet to avoid any hasty political reforms or ideology-driven policies that might be ill-perceived by Beijing and disrupt peace and stability across the strait.
As this fact illustrates, the Tsai administration has attempted to show its goodwill toward Beijing by exerting self-restraint and undertaking unilateral efforts to defuse possible political provocation.
However, Beijing has seemingly not only taken Taiwan’s low-key policies for granted, it has also strongly insisted that any future cross-strait development should submit to the precondition of the “1992 consensus,” which makes the political stalemate unsolvable.
If Beijing remains stuck in its self-made ideological trap, any conciliatory gestures from Taipei are likely to be misinterpreted as malicious scams. This not only hinders healthy development of relations, but also undermines Tsai’s incentives and patience in sustaining a moderate China policy at the expense of alienating and irritating the radical factions in her political camp.
What is worse is that Beijing seems to have a tendency to apply its political yardstick to gauge Taiwan’s vibrant and diverse political reality, which usually breeds more misconceptions instead of empathic understanding.
For instance, there have been various appeals from Taiwanese asking for revision of the national anthem, participation in the UN and so forth. It would be naive for Beijing to falsely assume that all of these political movements are motivated by and collude with the Tsai administration to secretively alter Taiwan’s status quo.
After all, Taiwan is a dynamic democracy. Unlike China, the government has to abide by the law and guarantee freedom of speech. It cannot brutally clamp down on lawful political activities, regardless of their political stance toward Taiwanese independence or unification with China.
Due to insufficient empathy, Beijing’s policies toward Taiwan are more inclined toward achieving satisfaction of its domestic political needs, rather than impartially facilitating a sustainable and constructive relationship.
However, Beijing’s ignorance about Taiwan’s political reality perhaps is not the most intimidating. What is more dangerous might be Beijing’s increasingly hegemonic mindset toward Taiwan and its other neighbors.
With its growing economy and ascending military capabilities, Chinese have become more confident and nationalistic than ever. The flip side of the coin is that some Chinese have become more conceited and self-centered, with a looming danger of fanatical nationalism. Threats from some Chinese to not exclude military means to unify with Taiwan shows this latent hazard.
As unbridled nationalism appears, Beijing’s growing authoritative proclivity to bully the weak might prove to be a double-edged sword. While it might satisfy domestic nationalist sentiment, its overbearing behavior might induce more backlash in the long run.
According to the latest opinion poll, Beijing’s heavy-handed retaliation against South Korea over the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense system has made China the most-hated nation in South Korea — higher than Japan. This should offer Beijing meaningful reflection on its Taiwan policy.
Given nationalism’s inflammability and destructiveness, it is undesirable for both Taipei and Beijing to turn the political deadlock into a clash between people on both sides. This is why both leaders have exercised tolerance and prevented political discord from escalating.
Both governments should do their utmost to reduce the odds of misperceptions. The best way to do this is to keep an open mind, avoid judgement and listen sincerely.
However, breaking the political impasse will require both sides to have a more flexible, creative and emphatic understanding of each other. These elements are needed to jump-start the stalled engine of cross-strait relations.
Eric Chiou is an assistant professor of international relations and international political economy at National Chiao Tung University.
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