National interests trump ideology

By Chao Chien-min 趙建民  / 

Wed, Mar 25, 2015 - Page 8

Last year was undoubtedly the worst year for President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) regarding cross-strait relations since he took office in 2008. The rise of various social movements complicated ties, and public opinion on his China policy shifted. As a result, apart from launching official talks between the ministers of the Mainland Affairs Council and China’s Taiwan Affairs Office, little has been achieved during Ma’s second term so far.

For Beijing, the stagnation is more than just a question of signing a few agreements, but more importantly, whether its line of peaceful development based on offering Taiwan advantages since 2008 is strategically correct.

After thinking about it for a year, Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平) expounded on his new Taiwan policy during a speech at the National Committee of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference earlier this month.

The policy highlights the so-called “1992 consensus” and strongly opposes Taiwanese independence. While the wording is not very different from the past, there are some subtle changes.

On the one hand, China maintains its course and is willing to continue cooperating with the Ma administration. On the other, it is issuing advance notice about its stance to prepare for possible changes after Taiwan’s presidential election next year.

First, Beijing chose to make concessions on the opening of its M503 commercial flight route — a matter of Taiwanese national security — on the eve of the conference, showing that China believes its policy of allowing Taiwan to gain advantages is effective.

This rules out speculation that Beijing is ready to move past Ma and deal with Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) Chairperson Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) if she succeeds Ma as president.

In short, there is still much that Ma can do for cross-strait affairs over the remaining year or more of his presidency.

Next, reflecting on the rising momentum of the DPP, Xi strengthened his opposition to Taiwanese independence and strongly condemned any move to advocate autonomy.

The opposition has long portrayed “unification” as dangerous, seemingly unaware that Beijing’s push for “unification” is a long-term strategy. China is attempting to lure Taiwanese over to shorten the gap between the two sides of the Taiwan Strait.

However, Taiwanese independence is an immediate threat that causes contradictions, and Beijing feels it must hit back immediately. The advantages and disadvantages of the two lines for Taiwan are self-evident.

Third, faced with the changes in Taiwan, China’s new policy is less political.

Beijing has removed some of its old rhetoric, such as calls for cross-strait political talks or saying that “unification” cannot be continuously delayed generation after generation.

China’s new policy is more pragmatic, but since it avoids mentioning “one China, with each side having its own interpretation,” some Taiwanese see this as an excuse to reject the “1992 consensus.”

Beijing must consider how to expand the foundation for mutual trust between the two sides and display greater flexibility on the stance of “one China.”

The Ma government, while refusing to be billed a caretaker government, no longer has any grand plans or ideals for administration. Ma’s handling of the lawsuit against Legislative Speaker Wang Jin-pyng (王金平) shows that he cares more about his historical legacy than the interests of the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) or the nation. Judicial independence is the basic principle underlining the separation of powers among the executive, legislative and judicial branches of government, and the protection of legislators from interference by the executive is a vital rule in a democracy that should not be violated.

If cross-strait confrontations were to reappear after a KMT loss next year, Taiwan might slide back for another eight years. How should one calculate such a major issue? The only solution is for Ma to once again focus on administrative affairs, giving priority to regaining the support of KMT legislators to improve the relationship between the executive and legislative branches.

Before Ma took office, the KMT used to attach great importance to the relationship between the executive and legislative branches. In the past, the KMT’s Central Policy Committee was powerful; organization of the legislative caucus was complete; caucus whips held frequent breakfast meetings; and the conveners of the legislative committees were responsible for communication with relevant government agencies. For major issues, then-president and KMT chairman Lee Teng-hui (李登輝) always gathered party legislators to give orders and exhortations in person.

Ma abolished most of these procedures, and pro-Ma legislators left him long ago. His neglect of the legislature is the cause of the government’s poor performance.

The government must promptly plan which representatives to send to the Cross-Strait Economic, Trade and Culture Forum between the KMT and the Chinese Communist Party, and the Boao Forum for Asia, so top officials on the two sides can resolve problems through dialogue.

The DPP has kept its focus on the presidential election. In the DPP 2014 China Policy Review: Summary Report (二○一四對中政策檢討紀要), the party proposed core concepts such as Taiwanese sovereignty, democratic values and a “Taiwan consensus,” but these were designed for domestic consumption only. It seems to believe that if it wins the presidency, Beijing would inevitably approach it.

In response, Xi has said that he would not compromise, saying that the “1992 consensus” has played an irreplaceable role in cross-strait dialogue and consultations and that “without a solid foundation, the earth will shake.”

If the DPP continues to deny the “1992 consensus,” it will be unable to build a new relationship with China even if it regains power, and the old “one China” framework is likely to collapse.

The cross-strait issue has consumed too much of the nation’s time, resources and competitiveness. Faced by a powerful rival with flexible policies, the pan-blue and pan-green camps must make national interests their top priority.

Chao Chien-min is chair professor and director of the Graduate Institute for Sun Yat-sen Thought and Mainland China Studies at Chinese Culture University.

Translated by Eddy Chang