Mainland Affairs Council Minister Wang Yu-chi (王郁琦) visited China last month, where he attended two meetings with his Chinese counterpart, Taiwan Affairs Office (TAO) Minister Zhang Zhijun (張志軍). In Taiwan, this news was either welcomed or treated with suspicion, depending on individual takes on what the nation’s China policy ought to be. And while the event was generally hotly debated in many countries, it was nevertheless possible to discern different leanings in public opinion, depending on the strategic interests of that country.
In Japan, for example, many news outlets covering the talks, including the Yomiuri Shimbun, offered their own commentary. In the US, after the White House National Security Council and the US Department of State had expressed the usual pleasantries welcoming the news, the New York Times editorial noted that this was the first meeting of government officials from Taiwan and China since 1949, the result of efforts to reduce tensions between the two countries, and was worth encouraging for the hope of future peace that it represented.
Distance has a way of coloring one’s perspective. It clearly was a factor in how the Wang-Zhang talks were received. What are Taiwanese, who are slap bang in the thick of it, to make of the confusion caused by conflicting ideas born of different national interests, especially when it comes to talking to international allies? Taiwan is a small country and this matter is of vital importance.
History is littered with examples of how a general assessment of major events by observers from afar has diverged from the more detailed, nuanced assessment from those on the ground. In the long run, however, the trends and tendencies that outside observers have hoped to extrapolate have not been borne out by subsequent developments.
In 1994, the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to then-Palestinian Liberation Organization leader Yasser Arafat, then Israeli-minister of foreign affairs Shimon Peres and then-Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin. The reason was Israel and Palestine having signed the US-mediated Oslo Accord the previous year — an event met with universal approval by an international community that hailed it as historically significant, despite the profound problems that remained between the parties. In reality, the military wing of Hamas continued its attacks and Rabin was assassinated by an Israeli extremist not long after receiving his Nobel. Morever, 24 years later, the US secretary of state still shuttles between Israel and the Palestinian Territories amid the unending conflict.
The standoff between North and South Korea may be more familiar in East Asia. In 2000, then-South Korean president Kim Dae-jung went to Pyongyang to meet then-North Korean leader Kim Jong-il. The summit was deemed to be of similarly historic significance and complemented the US’ movement away from its containment policy. It won Kim Dae-jung a Nobel Peace Prize. Nevertheless, what was a more persuasive summation of the reality as lived by South Koreans? Kim Dae-jung’s “Sunshine Policy,” or the concern that North Korea posed a threat?
Conclusions drawn by distant observers should not overly deviate from local reality.
Assessing the Wang-Zhang talks with this in mind, it is possible to differentiate reality from ideology. A comparison between what Wang and Zhang each wanted to achieve in the talks is informative. Just listen to what was said in the respective post-meeting international press conferences in China and Taiwan.
On Feb. 14, the council and China’s TAO each issued its own account to the international community. In terms of their structure, these accounts can be divided into two parts: the declaration of their respective stances, followed by an acknowledgment of points of consensus. China played the national card, saying that it prioritized the interests of the Chinese people as a whole, based on the idea that people on both sides of the Taiwan Strait all belong to one family and made clear its opposition to Taiwanese independence as well as insisting on the so-called “1992 consensus.”
There was no clear national stance in the account given in Taiwan, merely a sentence concerning a political stance: that the “1992 consensus” was crucial and core to systematic talks and to mutual interaction between the two sides of the Strait. This, strictly speaking, is a stance with which Beijing is in agreement. The council did not even elaborate on exactly what the administration of President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) means by the “1992 consensus.”
Furthermore, in this official forum, Wang not only behaved himself by not mentioning “the Republic of China” (ROC) or terms such as freedom, democracy, rule of law or president, as he had been instructed to do, he also openly paid lip service to China’s declaration that cross-strait relations are “not state-to-state relations,” single-handedly closing off an option that should really have been for 23 million Taiwanese to decide.
This, in itself, ran counter to Ma’s campaign promises and was made without the consent of either the public or their elected representatives in the legislature. Wang admitted that the speech he had prepared for Nanjing University had been vetted by his counterpart prior to his delivery.
In terms of the respective acknowledgment of the consensus made during the meeting, the TAO announced a five-point consensus, while the MAC spoke only of a three-point consensus. Apparently, full agreement was not quite achieved on two of the points: those concerning regional economic integration and having journalists permanently stationed in the respective countries.
Notably, Wang brought up the hope that China would support Taiwan’s bid to join the Trans-Pacific Partnership and the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership. The council suggested attempting to do both in parallel, reasoning that this would promote Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement (ECFA) followup talks on trade in services and in goods, and a dispute settlement mechanism. The TAO, meanwhile, declared that there had been a bilateral agreement to push ahead with the ECFA followup talks, and only then to turn to discussions on how to address the issue of regional economic integration.
There appear to be mixed messages on this, the “facts” depending on which side you listened to. However, things did become clearer, when Ma, in his role as Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) chairman, instructed his party legislators to pass the service trade pact within the next three months. Now we know which side was giving the more reliable version.
The public is only being fed a partial, incomplete account of what went on in the Wang-Zhang talks, demonstration — if any were needed — that the devil, indeed, lurks in the details. Observers looking in on the situation from afar have no way of discerning these subtleties, and this affords the powers-that-be a great deal of room in which to maneuver. Taiwanese, however, are in the thick of it, and so have a better handle on the truth.
Translated by Paul Cooper