The specter of the Russian war in Ukraine hung heavily over the Taipei-Shanghai Twin-City Forum on Tuesday. Even Taipei Mayor Ko Wen-je (柯文哲), usually so positive about the annual forum’s potential for promoting mutual awareness, understanding, respect, cooperation and consideration used the event to push back against China for increased cross-strait tensions, intimidation by the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) and bans on select imports.
The forum, held in Taipei and Shanghai on alternate years since 2010, and virtually for the past three occasions due to the COVID-19 pandemic, has always elicited an amount of unease, due to Beijing’s antipathy toward Taiwan and its stated intention to annex the nation.
Whether one agrees with the appropriateness of holding the forum depends entirely on one’s political leanings and view on the unification/independence debate. While pro-China, pro-unification individuals see the possibility of increasing cooperation and the fusing of the economies, the localist, pro-Taiwan mindset sees only the potential for China’s “united front” propaganda to be infused into the proceedings.
This concern has been amplified since 2016, when Beijing abruptly broke off cross-strait communication channels on a national level after President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) was elected, and refused to recognize the so-called “1992 consensus” as the basis for cross-strait talks. This elevated the forum to one of the few channels in which the two sides entered into any form of dialogue.
Ko did little to quell these concerns when he insisted on repeating the phrase that both sides of the Taiwan Strait belonged to “one family,” as this was regarded as being right out of the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) “united front” playbook. Even though last year he complained that his political rivals in Taiwan were turning the phrase against him and distorting his words, it would have been better had he not uttered them in the first place, especially as Shanghai Mayor Gong Zheng (龔正) took Ko’s sentiments and ran with them.
This year was different, for two reasons.
First, Ko stayed well clear of any talk about “one family,” and even Gong’s comments were a little more muted, although he would have had no reason to temper his words, and would have been praised in China for ramping them up.
Second, Ko pushed back against the PLA’s intimidation, the CCP’s refusal to allow Taiwan to participate in this year’s WHA meeting, and China’s string of indefensible import bans on Taiwan’s agricultural and fisheries products.
It is refreshing that Ko did these two, and interesting to consider the degree to which they were driven by political machinations.
Ko has said, on this occasion as on previous ones, that it is always better to have channels of communication open between the two sides.
When former minister of health and welfare Chen Shih-chung (陳時中) criticized his decision to go ahead with the forum this year, given the heightened tensions across the Strait, Ko responded by saying that it is precisely because of the heightened tensions that it was important to maintain communication channels.
It is difficult to fault his logic on that specific point, except that context is everything. His appeal for promoting mutual understanding and respect with the threat of imminent invasion at the forefront of people’s minds due to the ongoing atrocities being visited upon Ukraine by the CCP’s ally is either a noble call or sublime irony.
In addition, a municipal-level forum is a poor substitute for a national-level mechanism.
For whatever reason or political consideration, this year Ko seems to have had less enthusiasm for the forum, which lasted only 90 minutes. This is the last time Ko will attend the forum, as his second term as mayor ends this year, but he seemed content to allow the forum to pass not with a bang, but with a whimper.
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