The impossible consensus – is China threatening democracy in Taiwan?

It was the 1st January 2019: a new year. Numerous leaders across the world had welcomed it in their own unique way. Theresa May delivered a speech to the United Kingdom from Downing Street, calling for unification and a message of optimism in the face of Brexit uncertainty. Donald Trump chose to pick up his smart phone, sending out a tweet, ‘to all including my many enemies’, displaying the usual tact and magnanimity that has so far defined his presidency. In Moscow, Vladimir Putin addressed his country from a platform in Red Square, running on a theme of charity and family values to gauge his people’s enthusiasm for the challenges that lie ahead.

Meanwhile, in Beijing, Xi Jinping sat down and spoke to nearly 1.5 billion of his fellow Chinese, lauding the successes they had made as ‘comrades’ in 2018 and announcing that China’s reforms ‘will never stop’. Within this speech lay a premise that would be a precursor to his statement the next day. Xi spoke of the resilience of all the Chinese people, hinting at a new found togetherness, and stating that an ambitious construction spree would see over 5.8 million new homes built. “Many people from Hong Kong, Macao, and Taiwan now have resident permits for the mainland.” A new style by the Chinese premier: giving an almost reconciliatory tone when referring to those from across the Formosa Strait in Taiwan.

The next day, 2nd January, the world watched again as Xi sat down and this time sent out a clear message directly to Taiwan. “Chinese people don’t attack Chinese people. We are willing to strive for the prospect of reunification through peaceful methods…we do not promise to renounce the use of force.” Having welcomed in the New Year, Xi took the opportunity to reassert the old Chinese policy of treating Taiwan as merely a disobedient province. The speech proceeded to highlight the problems caused by “foreign forces who seek to interfere”, referred to the pro-independence, ruling DPP party as “separatists” and claiming that unification with the mainland would culminate in greater prosperity, dignity and an enhanced standing within the international community.  The speech prompted a furious response from Tsai ing-wen, President of Taiwan. She said China must accept Taiwan’s democratic institutions and seek a peaceful manner to resolve issues.

This exchange was over three weeks ago and now the western international community appears to have largely forgotten it, but the question remains: is the threat to democracy in Taiwan real?

History shows that there is no love lost between the two countries; the frosty relations can be clearly traced back to the bloody civil war, when Chiang Kai-Shek’s Nationalist Kuomintang party fled to the island of Taiwan from Mao’s victorious communists in 1949. For thirty-years, the relationship between the two was warlike at worst and hostile at best, with several crises almost sparking armed conflict between the two. The thawing in relations that began in 1979 culminated in a breakthrough in the early 1990s, when the two sides came together and agreed on what is known as the ‘1992 consensus’.  This accord stated that the two sides both adhered to the view that there was ‘one China’, with differing interpretations on its consistency. 

Whilst this consensus was hailed as a historic breakthrough, the flaws in it seem to have caused an almost unbreakable impasse. Before going any further, it is important to emphasise that an agreement that has brought relative peace and stability to a notoriously hostile region is something to be commended; in 2008 a high-profile meeting between representatives of both sides led to an agreement to build on postal, trade and transport links between Taiwan and the mainland. However, the ‘consensus’ has only served to delay the inevitable question: how do you build on a consensus when both parties will not tolerate the other’s interpretation of it? Within the context of the Formosa Strait the short answer is: you can’t. China will not abandon its claim to Taiwan; Xi’s New Year speech outlined this clearly. As Shining Tan explained in an article in The Diplomat, the agreement is considered to be a major strategic asset in Beijing, giving them the basis with which to push for reunification and simultaneously oppose Taiwan independence. Furthermore, Xi’s communist party refuses to take part in any further talks unless it is based around the framework of the consensus; that the issues being discussed concern ‘one China’ rather than two separate states. The current political position of Taiwan also serves to complicate matters: the ruling DPP vehemently oppose the consensus, while the KMT opposition supports the agreement in their manifesto. In November 2018, Tsai’s DPP suffered heavily in the midterm elections leading to her resignation as leader of the party. Many political commentators believe that these results were the catalyst for Xi’s aggressive statement from 2nd January.

In the past, Beijing has frequently backed up its claims to Taiwan and opposition to what it calls ‘separatist independence movements’, with shows of military force. Prior to 1979, this was shown with regular artillery bombardments from the mainland. Under Xi’s premiership, the increasingly modernised People’s Liberation Army has, according to some US sources, increased its preparedness in the event of a so-called ‘Taiwan contingency’. Furthermore, satellite photos from May 2018 have shown that China is significantly developing its major air base in the south of the country; a base noted for being only 160 miles from the centre of the Taiwanese capital Taipei.

China hasn’t just limited itself to military posturing in its goal to isolate Taiwan. There is also significant evidence demonstrating that China is ramping up pressure on businesses and governments to accept Taiwan as a part of the People’s Republic. In 2018 the three biggest US airlines, along with Qantas, BA and Lufthansa all bowed to pressure from Beijing and stopped referring to Taiwan as a nation, following demands from the mainland that to almost fifty international airlines.

So what if Taiwan becomes part of China? Xi Jinping has used the famous ‘one country, two systems’ model in Hong Kong as part of his carrot and stick approach with Taiwan. In theory, Taiwan would have a semi-devolved government and democracy would remain reasonably intact but given China’s track record in Hong Kong and its attempts to encroach on the cities democratic institutions, it is no wonder President Tsai was defiant in her response to such a suggestion. In fact, the one face of this stand-off in the Formosa Strait that gives Taiwan a strong position is the current incumbent of the US Presidency. Donald Trump’s fiery and aggressive position concerning China is well-documented, culminating in the current ongoing trade war. Even before his victory in 2016, Trump had accused the Chinese of ‘ripping off America’, of being ‘currency manipulators’ and even claiming climate change was a hoax created by China. It only took a few days into his presidency before Trump went against the status quo and spoke to the leader of Taiwan; the first president since Jimmy Carter to do so. This prompted a furious response from Beijing, but it did not deter ‘The Donald’. Since that time the US position concerning Taiwanese sovereignty has remained strong, with arms sales being approved at a much faster pace than under both Barack Obama and George W. Bush. But, much like the 1992 consensus, the administration’s support for Taiwan could prove problematic, given how unpredictable and aggressive Trump can be. From a Taiwanese perspective, what is more favourable? A volatile, but anti-China, individual in Donald Trump. Or: a more diplomatic President akin to Obama or Clinton. Much will hinge on political developments in the US, particularly with the next Presidential election set for 2020, the same year Tsai will look to triumph in her own election, a vote touted to be a close call after the defeats in the 2018 midterms. One thing is for certain though: no matter what happens, China will be watching very, very closely.


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