Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Some Thoughts on Cross-strait Relations (1987-2007)

Since Taiwan lifted the ban that restricted Taiwanese from visiting China in 1987, cross-strait interactions have accelerated and grown. Throughout the past twenty years, major transformations such as leadership transitions and the SEF-ARATS talks (Strait Exchange Foundation-Association of Relations across the Taiwan Strait talks, which consists of unofficial consultation channel between Taiwan and China) have not changed popular anticipation of peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait.

However, some constraints have been imposed on the development across the Strait, giving rise to the following major events: Koo-Wang Talk (1993), clashes over the Taiwan Strait (1995 and 1996), Second Koo-Wang Talk in Shanghai (1998), announcement of special “state-to-state relations” principle (1999), Taiwan’s transition to democracy (marked by the KMT’s first presidential defeat; 2000), Taiwan’s admission to WTO (2001), proposal of “one country on each side” principle (2002), launch of first charter flights across the Strait (2003), disputes over the usage of Taiwanese referendum during 2004 presidential election (2004), announcement of Hu’s “four points,” passage of the Anti-Secession Law and first post-Cold War direct contacts between KMT and CCP (2005), and CCP’s 17th Party Congress and Taipei’s proposal to enter the UN by using the name of Taiwan (2007). These events consisting of confrontations and exchanges amidst both sides’ domestic transformations reflect Taiwan and China’s innovative attempts to overcome constraints imposed by international and domestic political realities.

As the outcomes of these events indicate, such efforts do not always yield success. It is because that some factors like unequal international status, rivalry over political and economic influence, divergent political paths and constant bickering over sovereignty-related issues have generated mutual mistrusts across the Strait.

This year, the world pays close attention to China’s recent 17th Party Congress, because Chinese leadership would announce major policy changes in this event. During the 17th Party Congress, the CCP expressed its determination in promoting “peaceful interactions” with Taiwan. Most observers see great significance in such declaration. Despite Taiwan’s growth in “secessionist” sentiments, this 17th Party Congress report nevertheless uses mild words such as “cross-strait,” “peace,” “Taiwan,” “peaceful reunification,” and “peace and development.” As it is markedly different from past practices of using threatening words and tone, it shows CCP’s change in intention and attitude towards Taiwan.

Such potential change in intention, however, does not guarantee changes in China’s policy towards Taiwan. While it is no exception for Chinese officials and scholars to praise and interpret the meaning behind the 17th Party Congress report, I suggest that those interpretations in fact have little value, unless the interpretations are accurate enough in terms of evaluating political realities in Taiwan, or the Chinese leadership can truly implement these policies. Mere interpretations without real assessment or policy implementation not only reflects Chinese leadership’s unchanging attitude towards Taiwan, but also leads to policy outcomes that are out of touch with political reality. Therefore, the report itself has little effect in helping both sides to achieve “peace and development.”

Generally speaking, most observers believe that the future of cross-strait relations remains uncertain. Public opinion polls consistently show that the majority of Taiwanese prefer status quo; only 15% of Taiwanese prefer reunification, while 20 % or more support independence. Thus, proposals regarding reunification or independence are rejected by the Taiwanese people. In other words, it is difficult to find support for reunification or independence-driven strategic policies in Taiwan. As most scholars argue, it is difficult for both sides to reach consensus, unless either of the two conditions is fulfilled: 1) reunification with both sides as democracy, or 2) independence through peaceful means.

Such dismal prospect does not mean that there is no hope over the future of cross-strait relations. In any case, Taiwan, China and the global community all prefer to have peaceful development across the Strait, so this can be a common policy goal for both sides. For Taiwan, domestic consensus is much needed, which in turn requires the establishment of effective institutions and principles. I recommend our next president to establish a “Cross-Strait Peace Development Office,” an executive-branch agency that deals with this precise goal. In addition, I also suggest that we should create “Principle over the Peaceful Cross-Strait Development.” This principle will serve as a communication channel for Taiwan’s political parties and for future exchanges between Taiwan and China. It is my belief that such policy will help Taiwan and China to truly implement the ideas of “peaceful development” across Taiwan Strait.

Besides, it is also crucial for Beijing to recognize the need for new attitude and new policy strategies; otherwise, the chance for having a mutual consensus on the future development across the Strait is low. The SEF-ARATS talks and the “Macau Model” have taught Beijing that stalemate arises whenever negotiations involve issues of Taiwan’s political identity and legal jurisdiction. Thus, any future negotiation on issues such as direct flights, crime prevention cooperation, trade institutionalization and peace agreements, will be “mission impossible” if Taipei and Beijing cannot creatively and effectively identify Taiwan’s political status and legal jurisdiction rights.

Even though peaceful development is unlikely to occur in the short run, I believe that there still exist many ways to facilitate peace and stability between China and Taiwan. To overcome the present stalemate, both sides should have better understandings of each other’s domestic political and social contexts. Moreover, Taipei and Beijing should work to decrease negative effects of any political conflict that occurs in the process of pursuing peaceful development. Only de-emphasizing political/regime considerations and putting an emphasis on citizens and civil societies will promote peace and development across the Taiwan Strait.

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