Former Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) chairman Wu Po-hsiung (吳伯雄) on March 22, described the situation across the Taiwan Strait as “one country, two areas” (一國兩區). Is the KMT preparing Taiwan for midterm unification with the People’s Republic of China (PRC), or is it merely fine-tuning its response to Beijing’s ever-increasing global power, by trying to please China without being too specific about the content and concrete implications of this declaration?
The KMT and Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) have long taken into consideration that the military and diplomatic balance in the Taiwan Strait increasingly favors China. While the DPP has called for a cautious, but closer dialogue with China, the KMT has, since 2005, cooperated extensively with the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). Since Ma’s election in 2008, the KMT has justified this as a way to secure cross-strait peace and greater economic opportunities for Taiwan. In point of fact, both parties appear to be gambling with the nation’s future.
The pan-greens are betting that China will accept closer relations without talks on unification. The pan-blues believe they can defend the Republic of China’s (ROC) sovereignty in talks with a regime that refuses to recognize the ROC as a sovereign regime and insists that Taiwan accept its “one China” principle.
In the eyes of the DPP, the KMT’s new formula of “one country, two areas” is equivalent to the PRC’s old “one country, two systems” formula, which both the KMT and the DPP have consistently opposed.
Faced with criticism of its “new” position, the KMT has said the “one country, two areas” concept has been an integral element of the ROC Constitution since 1991, when the constitutional amendments recognized that the territory of the ROC is divided into the “mainland area” and the “Taiwan area,” hoping for eventual unification of the two sides.
Although the KMT denies that this formulation represents anything new, many consider it to be an attempt to appease Beijing. Indeed, it affirms more clearly than ever before that the KMT accepts Beijing’s “one China” principle, even with studied ambiguity over which China that means.
The question is whether Wu simply said something China wanted to hear, while remaining deliberately vague about the meaning of which China is mentioned.
Before the new cross-strait relationship unfolds further in the months and years to come, we might be well-advised to look at the similarities and differences between the geopolitical situations Taiwan faced in the 1680s and now.
With the end of the Rebellion of the Three Feudatories against the relatively new Qing Dynasty in 1681, China underwent a renaissance after decades of decadence in the latter years of the Ming Dynasty.
By then, the Cheng regime, established in Taiwan in 1662 to overthrow the Manchus and reinstate the Ming on the Chinese imperial throne, was a shadow of the powerful insular kingdom it had been earlier, having emptied its coffers in several failed military campaigns in China. At that time, the “Dongning kingdom” of Taiwan faced a Qing court determined to eliminate those it called “sea pirates.”
On July 16, 1683, the balance of power between China’s new rulers and the weakened pro-Ming bastion on Taiwan definitely shifted. The Cheng regime was defeated in a decisive battle at sea by Qing Admiral Shih Lang (施琅).
What followed this event and ultimately led to Taiwan’s incorporation as part of China was a political process, not a military one.
The Cheng regime decided to abandon combat and negotiate with China’s new rulers. It appealed to China by saying exactly what the Qing court most wanted to hear: They would abandon their claim to reinstate the Ming and acknowledge the legitimacy of the Qing.
This is similar to the PRC’s insistence that the ROC did not continue to exist on Taiwan after 1949 and that Beijing is the sole legitimate ruler of China.
As China continues to increase the pressure on Taiwan, the KMT is trying to find ways to protect its stronghold by appeasing Beijing. What we must consider is whether the KMT, like the Cheng regime before it, is prepared to surrender, if negotiations fail.
The two periods are of course very different. Taiwanese politics responds to public opinion, democratically elected leaders are held responsible by the electorate and the nation has a powerful, if not unconditional, international ally — the US.
Despite this, the political process that took hold in the summer of 1683 might still provide some pointers to better understand the intricacies of the current situation.
After opposing the Qing Dynasty for several decades, the Taiwan-based Ming loyalists initially tried, in the summer of 1683, to negotiate the survival of their regime under Qing suzerainty, but the Qing refused: The imperial court’s main aim was to eliminate the Ming--loyalist regime, which symbolized a lasting denial of its legitimacy.
It was not interested in Taiwan and did not want to make it a vassal state. In September 1683, the leaders of the Cheng regime surrendered their official seals and returned to China.
However, the incorporation of Taiwan as part of Qing China was not decided until the next year, after months of debate about the pros and cons of including the “savage island.”
Today, the flexible feudal notion of suzerainty has been replaced by the more inflexible concept of sovereignty, and the events of 1683, which led to Taiwan’s inclusion as part of Chinese territory until 1895, has left in China’s collective memory a deep-seated belief that Taiwan is an integral part of China.
From a geopolitical point of view, the global logic of the two periods looks surprisingly similar: in the way a resurgent China is pressuring Taiwan to accept Beijing’s authority — then, over just China, but now, over both China and Taiwan.
In addition, a resurgent China then called into question the independence of the Dongning kingdom and now makes it more difficult for the ROC to protect its independence.
Pro-independence parties are even weaker in resistance than the KMT; they plead for more talks with China, hoping that Beijing will ultimately accept that a very close relationship between two independent neighbors has undeniable advantages over a forced inclusion that would create instability. However, this is not China’s view and strategy: By developing cross-strait economic relations Beijing seeks to buy unification by smoothing opposition to such an outcome.
The KMT is highly divided on this issue, because most party members and cadres are Taiwanese. However, the KMT is once again headed by mainlanders and the second-generation of that political elite is reshaping the party’s policy at the top, against the wishes of the vast majority of Taiwanese who oppose unification.
Even if this “new old” KMT is not ready to surrender to China, it clearly longs for unification. It has just done what the Cheng regime did in July 1683, namely accept that the regime in China is the legitimate ruler of China.
As with the Cheng family, the KMT’s top leaders come from China and remain imbued with a Chinese moral code.
In order to do what cannot be achieved at the ballot box in Taiwan — progressing toward unification — the KMT dares not say what it does, and is reluctant to do what it says.
We should be aware that the conclusion of this process could well be the end of a democratic experience in Asia and of the free expression of a very rich pluralistic identity in Taiwan — as well as the last source, after Hong Kong, of a very well-informed and usefully unconventional knowledge about China itself.
Stephane Corcuff is an associate professor of political science at Lyon’s Institute of Political Studies and a researcher at the Institute of East Asia, Lyon.
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