Is the “harmonious society” that Chinese President Hu Jintao (胡錦濤) constantly proclaims being realized in China’s relations with Taiwan?
Before Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) became Taiwan’s president in May 2008, Taiwan was regularly portrayed in China as a “troublemaker” and was the main cause of tension between China and the US. Now Taiwan has become something of a diplomatic afterthought because it no longer makes trouble. At the US-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue, indeed, Taiwan was barely mentioned, as North Korea, Iran and the value of the Chinese yuan claimed the most attention.
It has always been unfair to demonize the Taiwanese merely for wanting what most people around the world take for granted: To uphold their basic human rights and way of life, including the right to decide through a democratic process their own future.
China, however, rejects such sentiments about self-determination and, as a rising power, China is not a force that even democratic leaders dismiss lightly. For years, China’s ruling Communist Party has maintained that Taiwan is a “core national interest,” despite the reality that Taiwan has existed and functioned as a virtual state for 60 years.
China has long threatened to use force if the international community should formally recognize Taiwan’s independence. However, the atmosphere gradually changed in recent years and the “troublemaker” label, applied under former president Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁) of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), has not been used for two years.
Of course, Taiwan under Ma still wants the same rights that it desired under Chen. but Ma has taken a different approach. He has eased tensions with China by focusing on what both sides can agree upon. China’s leaders find his language inoffensive. He seeks to advance Taiwan’s national interests without arousing Beijing’s threat to use force and he has sought to forge closer trade and transport links.
Ma’s strategy suits China, whose leaders welcome being able to avoid confrontation with Taiwan, given their current focus on engineering their country’s “peaceful rise.” Moreover, China does not wish to see the DPP and its aggressively pro-independence leaders return to power. When Ma’s popularity fell dramatically as Taiwan’s economy suffered from the global financial crisis, China’s leaders worked with Ma to pre-empt just such an outcome.
This has allowed Ma’s administration to claim credit for improving relations with China. However, the fundamental causes underlying the threat of a China-Taiwan war — and conflict between China and the US, which has long been committed to supporting Taiwan should China seek to determine its status unilaterally — have not been removed. Beijing remains committed to forcing Taiwan to accept the idea of ultimate “reunification,” while the Taiwanese remain determined to decide their own future.
However, each side’s interests need not be mutually exclusive. The right to national self-determination does not imply an assertion of de jure independence. For example, acknowledgement of Scotland’s right to choose independence has not resulted in Scotland leaving the UK. What people in Taiwan want is nothing more and nothing less than acknowledgement that they can decide their own future.
Given China’s deep distrust, it will never believe that a DPP president who insists on the Taiwanese people’s right to determine their own future will not secretly push for independence. However, since China knows that Ma is not advocating independence, they are able to countenance with greater equanimity his commitment to sustain the Republic of China — the official name of the government in Taipei — on Taiwan.
If ever there was an opportunity for China and Taiwan to find a way to ensure that future confrontations do not escalate and drag the US into a conflict, it is now. What Ma must do is forge a clearer consensus within Taiwan that the independence vs unification issue is a phony one. The real issue is whether both sides can acknowledge that Taiwan’s people have the right to determine their future.
China’s leaders need to be persuaded that conceding this point does not imply letting Taiwan move towards de jure independence. This may require that the Taiwanese abandon their tendency to hold regular referendums to show that they enjoy this right.
Beijing will need to recognize that the best way to entice Taiwanese to embrace reunification is to make the proposition so attractive that they cannot resist. There is no need to set a timetable for this. As a rising superpower, China should feel confidant that time is on its side.
The whole world shares an interest in preventing disagreements between Taiwan and China from becoming a cause for military confrontation between the US and China. Ma has created the necessary conditions for deactivating the trigger. It is time for the rest of the world to support him in removing it forever, so that Taiwan will continue to fade as a global security concern.
Steve Tsang is a professorial fellow in Taiwan Studies at St Antony’s College, Oxford University.
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