Much attention has swirled around the spate of leaders’ summits and meetings related to the Korean Peninsula, particularly the historic summit between US President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un in Singapore on June 12. The key topic hogging the limelight has been the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.
However, what is less discussed has been the implications of the summit on cross-strait relations.
The summit was unprecedented, as it brought the leaders of the US and North Korea, still technically at war, together for the first time. This has revived suggestions in Taiwan on the possibility of a similar meeting between President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) and Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平) in the interest of pursuing peace and stability in cross-strait relations.
Taiwan viewed the summit in the context of two parties willing to set aside their past differences and prejudices to come together for talks to promote regional peace and stability. A day after the summit, at a regular meeting of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) to discuss its strategic impact, Tsai was reported to have strongly affirmed that the US and North Korea were willing to set aside their past confrontation, pursue peaceful and rational dialogue, and make joint efforts to resolve tensions on the peninsula and in East Asia.
Tsai also reportedly said that the National Security Council, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and other departments would continue to maintain close contact with nations of similar political philosophies in the region and jointly monitor the latest developments on the Korean Peninsula to ensure that Taiwan’s interests are safeguarded in the event of any situational changes.
The government would also work to secure more opportunities to collaborate with the international community to enable Taiwan to play a more important role in promoting regional peace, stability and prosperity, she added.
From the above remarks attributed to Tsai, what was left unsaid or implied is just as important as what was said. For instance, when Tsai mentioned that the US and North Korea were willing to set aside their past confrontation, she was hinting that Taiwan and China should do likewise and pursue talks in the interest of cross-strait peace and stability.
Several weeks ago, in the aftermath of the summit between South Korean President Moon Jae-in and Kim in April, Tsai was much more explicit when she said that she was willing to engage in substantive dialogue with Xi. She further urged China to adopt a new and different thinking on its relations with Taiwan.
What Tsai was saying was that she would like China to refrain from setting any preconditions for talks, especially its insistence that she recognizes the so-called “1992 consensus” that there is only “one China,” with each side having its own interpretation of what “China” means.
For Tsai, recognizing the “1992 consensus” would be politically costly for her and her party. Hence, Tsai has so far only said that she respected the historical fact that in 1992 there was a certain common understanding reached, but this falls short of China’s expectations.
Separately, a senior member of a Taiwanese think tank closely affiliated to the DPP posited that developments on the world stage provided an opportune moment for a Tsai-Xi meeting. This is because there was a possibility that the Trump administration, which is more supportive of Taiwan, could beat Xi to it or steal the political limelight by first proposing a Trump-Tsai meeting.
In the member’s view, China would be “fearful” of such an outcome and would want to ensure that Xi meets Tsai before Trump meets her.
One message implicit in Tsai’s remarks is that Taiwan is to work with other nations of similar political philosophies, i.e. the US, to counter what Taiwan regards as China’s unilateral efforts to change the “status quo” in cross-strait relations. This intention was unequivocally stated when Tsai met with American Institute in Taiwan Chairman James Moriarty on the occasion of the formal opening of the institute’s new premises in Taipei last month.
Tsai told Moriarty that Taiwan was “committed to engaging the United States in defense and security cooperation so that the two sides can work together to ensure regional peace and stability.”
“China’s recent offensive to suppress Taiwan’s diplomatic presence and frequent military actions underscore a unilateral attempt to change the ‘status quo’ of peace and stability” and such actions have “increased tension in the region,” she added.
Publicly, Taiwan appears to be in solidarity with the US by standing up to China’s aggressive moves. There has so far been no official indication that Taiwan is concerned about Trump and the US’ resolve to follow through on its commitments.
Taiwanese observers have had mixed views on the US announcement to end war games with South Korea and the possibility of an eventual troop withdrawal from South Korea. There is a view that even if the US were to stop the war games, this would not automatically be in China’s favor in terms of enabling it to expand its presence in the region, because other forms of US-South Korea military training are expected to continue.
Others have expressed concerns over the possibility of the US eventually withdrawing its troops from South Korea if this was a precondition for North Korea to deliver on its denuclearization promise down the road.
If this happens, it would provide an “excellent opportunity” for China to expand its influence in Northeast Asia, thereby posing a “huge threat” to the stability of the region and security of South Korea and Japan, they said.
Furthermore, China’s military expansion in the East China Sea, South China Sea and Taiwan Strait would make the entire region “exclusively China’s domain,” the observers said.
China’s response to the Trump-Kim summit is markedly different from Taiwan’s in three aspects: The first difference is that while Taiwan has largely been reactive to the summit by welcoming its positive contribution to peace and stability, China has been proactive in claiming credit for the outcome of the summit. For one thing, China has said that the summit was something that China had always advocated, namely the need for the US and North Korea to engage in direct talks with each other.
China has said that Trump’s announcement of halting war games with South Korea is the materialization of China’s “suspension for suspension” initiative, which calls on the US and South Korea to suspend large-scale military exercises in return for North Korea suspending its nuclear and ballistic missile program.
China views the situation on the peninsula as now moving in the direction of the “dual track” approach it had also advocated, which calls for parallel efforts to explore denuclearization while pursuing peace.
China has even suggested the necessary next steps. A Global Times article said that it was time to pull the curtains down on US troops stationed in South Korea, which Trump had said was not a matter of discussion at the moment.
The article lauded China for its earlier visionary call for the withdrawal of all foreign troops on the peninsula immediately after the end of the Korean War, and added that China completed its troop withdrawal by 1958.
In contrast, the US has strengthened its military presence in South Korea, it said, adding that discussions on the issue of US troops and related deployments, such as the US’ nuclear security umbrella and the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense system, could not be avoided and would need to be addressed to ensure follow-up success to the Trump-Kim summit.
The second difference is that China has called for UN sanctions on North Korea to be eased, while Taiwan has been understandably mum. China has said that sanctions ought to be eased in line with moves taken by North Korea to abide by relevant UN resolutions. It has further urged relevant parties to work toward a political settlement rather than rely solely on sanctions.
The third difference is that while Taiwan has said that it is ready for talks with China on an equal footing and with no preconditions, China has been quick to squash any linkage between the Trump-Kim summit and a possible Xi-Tsai encounter.
A day after the summit, China’s Taiwan Affairs Office spokesperson Ma Xiaoguang (馬曉光) said that the Taiwan issue is purely an internal Chinese affair and that its nature is entirely different from North Korea-US relations.
At the same news conference, Ma said that the November 2015 meeting in Singapore between Xi and former president Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) was possible on the basis of the two leaders’ commitment to the “1992 consensus” and opposition to Taiwanese independence.
Ma Xiaoguang said that since the DPP assumed office, it has refused to recognize the “1992 consensus,” thereby undermining the political foundation for peaceful development of cross-strait relations. Therefore, unless the “1992 consensus” is recognized, China can be expected to step up all-around pressure on Taiwan to force it to yield to China’s approach.
Unlike Taiwan, China has refused to entertain the idea that the Trump-Kim summit would translate into positive dynamics for cross-strait relations.
Beyond the Taiwan issue, China has welcomed the summit, because it sets in motion developments that could potentially generate positive outcomes for China, such as denuclearizing North Korea, easing UN sanctions, reforming the North Korean economy, reducing the US’ rationale to maintain a military presence in South Korea and weakening the US military alliance with the South.
In this game, Taiwan’s options appear to be limited. On one hand, it has said that it is committed to strengthening its ties with the US, including on defense and security matters.
This is because the general hardening of attitude in Washington toward China has translated into developments that appear to favor Taiwan, such as the strengthening of US-Taiwan defense interactions under the US’ National Defense Authorization Act, Trump’s signing of the Taiwan Travel Act and the approval by the US Department of State for US companies to sell submarine technology to Taiwan.
On the other hand, Taiwan, for all its rhetoric about working with nations that share similar political philosophies, is acutely aware of the dangers of overplaying the US card vis-a-vis China.
One of the key questions that is certainly on the minds of Tsai and the DPP is whether the US would be able to stay the course in terms of its stated commitments to Taiwan, given Trump’s mercurial personality and penchant to make spot decisions without prior consultations with US allies or friends, including Taiwan.
In addition, Trump is already approaching the halfway mark of his first term. Even if he wins a second term ending 2025, Xi is expected to be at the helm in China for longer.
Under Xi, China has stepped up the tempo of restricting Taiwan’s international space and efforts to bring Taiwan under its fold. While Tsai still occasionally talks about maintaining the “status quo,” China is no longer enamored with this term.
Tsai and her administration will need to be even more adept at managing relations with not only China, but also the US.
Lye Liang-fook is senior fellow and cocoordinator of the Vietnam Studies Program at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies — Yusof Ishak Institute. The views expressed here are entirely his own and do not represent those of the institute. This article was first published by ISEAS Perspective on July 2.
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