Every which way but one
Pressure has been mounting on Taiwan's President Ma Ying-jeou since his emissary to Beijing proposed that relations with the mainland be redefined as 'one country, two areas'.
To many, it sounded like capitulation to Beijing and the end of the dream of Taiwanese independence. A poll released by the opposition party several days ago showed 60 per cent of respondents disagreed with Ma's surprise initiative.
But Ma's party, the Kuomintang (KMT), insists the 'one country' in the formulation would be Taiwan, not that much larger and more powerful land mass across the strait, and says the island would be on equal footing with the People's Republic of China .
Wu Poh-hsiung, KMT honorary chairman, stirred a hornets' nest when he told President Hu Jintao during a meeting in Beijing on March 22 that cross-strait ties were not a 'country to country' relationship, but rather a 'special' relationship that should be defined as 'one country, two areas'. Wu later told reporters this was a message that Ma had wanted him to relay.
The island's pro-independence camp immediately accused the mainland-friendly Ma of trying to surrender Taiwan's sovereignty to Beijing.
Ma maintained there was nothing wrong in describing cross-strait ties as a 'special relationship'. He stressed that in his concept, the 'one country' is the 'Republic of China' (the formal name for Taiwan) and that the 'Taiwan area' and 'the mainland area' held equal status.
That explanation went nowhere with the pro-independence camp, which suspects this wording is just a repackaging of 'one country, two systems' - the formulation that Deng Xiaoping trotted out years ago as a model for cross-strait reunification. Taiwan has consistently said 'no, thank you' to that, certain it would turn the island's government into a local authority under Beijing's control, like Hong Kong and Macau.
'One country, two areas' has generated so much heat and anger that some local news media and opposition leaders wonder why Ma brought it up in the first place.
'What exactly is Ma's motive behind this?' asked the Liberty Times daily in Taipei, noting it was not the first time that Ma had come under criticism for making such a proposal.
Ma had voiced the idea when he was KMT chairman from 2005 to 2007. It didn't raise any ripples then because Ma was still Taipei mayor and the KMT the opposition party.
But shortly after Ma became president in 2008 and opted for a policy of engaging the mainland, he brought up the concept again during an interview with a Mexican newspaper. That August 2008 interview brought fiery attacks from the pro-independence camp, which slammed him for belittling Taiwan's national status and called him the 'area chief' rather than president.
Ma retorted that the criticism was a 'serious distortion' of his meaning. 'One country means the Republic of China,' he said in October that year. He said Taiwan had long been known as the 'Taiwan area', as evidenced by the titles of many organisations, including 27 set up when the Democratic Progressive Party ran the government between 2000 and 2008 and used 'Taiwan area' in titles. In 2009, Ma repeated the concept when he declared his bid to run for another term as KMT chairman.
The Liberty Times speculated that Ma brought up the issue because of the 'debt' he owed to the mainland for supporting his re-election in January. '[Mainland] China's involvement in the [presidential election in Taiwan] by supporting Ma was unprecedented and what Ma recently touted was much closer to the 'one China framework' Beijing has long wanted to consolidate,' the paper said on March 25. Ma was 'obviously responding to the reunification pressure from China', it added.
Beijing, of course, has opposed Taiwan's independence since the end of the civil war in 1949. Time and again it has urged the island to reunify with the mainland.
Former DPP chairwoman Dr Tsai Ing-wen - who stepped down as the pro-independence party's leader on March 1 after losing January's presidential election to Ma - lashed out at the proposal as something improper, saying it 'would cause instability and misery' for Taiwan.
'It is very dangerous because the KMT has not been able to explain the difference between the Republic of China and the People's Republic of China,' she said.
Because the KMT had recognised the 'one China' principle, she said, it would be difficult for the international community not to assume that the Ma government had accepted that Taiwan was a part of China, which for most countries was represented by the People's Republic of China.
DPP spokesman Lin Yu-chang accused Ma of bullying and ambushing the opposition parties and the public by announcing a major policy or decision regarding the island's status without seeking a domestic consensus, as Ma previously had said he would.
Some DPP lawmakers even threatened to sue Ma for treason for trying to give up Taiwan's sovereignty and turn it into an area of the mainland. The uproar insensifted after Lai Shin-yuan, chairwoman of Taiwan's top mainland- policy planning body, the Mainland Affairs Council, and Tsai Der-sheng, head of the island's National Security Bureau, admitted they were not consulted or briefed on Wu's controversial comment before the KMT honorary chairman headed to Beijing.
'The issue reflects a dysfunctional administration, with KMT officials making major political statements for the government,' said DPP legislator Tuan Yi-kang. He slammed Ma for hurting the mutual trust between the opposition and the government by failing to seek a consensus before delivering important decisions.
In response, Lai insisted that Wu had said nothing new about cross-strait relations because his words were in line with the constitution and the Act Governing Relations between People of the Taiwan Area and the Mainland Area.
Lai did admit that the 'one country, two areas' concept aired by Wu was an 'oversimplification of a complex initiative'. But he said the concept did not signal that the Ma government was ready to hold political talks with Beijing.
Tsai, the National Security Bureau director, said he did not think the concept would become government policy or that the Ma administration was hoping to hold reunification talks with Beijing. 'Besides, there has been no official response from the mainland so far,' he noted.
The meeting between Hu and Wu was widely reported by mainland media, but those outlets omitted the 'one country, two areas' proposal.
Yang Yi , spokesman of the mainland's Taiwan Affairs Office under the State Council, said the meeting produced major results, including the consensus that relations between Taiwan and the mainland were not 'country to country', and that both sides insist on 'one China' and agree to seek common ground and to put aside their differences.
He also said both sides agreed to strengthen political trust and reaffirmed their opposition to Taiwan's independence. They also insisted on upholding the '1992 consensus' - an agreement by both sides, reached in Hong Kong in 1992, that there was only one China but each side could have its own interpretation of what that China stood for.
Under mounting attack, Ma countered that the 'one China, two areas' concept had been clearly stated in the constitution since it was amended under then president Lee Teng-hui in 1992.
'A provision was added that a special law should be enacted to govern relations between the 'free area' and the 'mainland area' of the country,' Ma said at KMT meeting on March 28. That allowed for the subsequent Act Governing the Relations between People of the Taiwan Area and the Mainland Area.
His party also pointed out Ma was not the first person to raise the concept. They said former DPP leader Tsai had even coined the term 'one country, four areas', referring to a Taiwan area, mainland area, Hong Kong area and Macau area.
But Tsai said she made that proposal when she was still a scholar and recruited for a task force in 1993 to draft the act governing relations between Taiwan and Hong Kong and Macau. And that, she added, was merely an internal act that should not be used to address the issues of national sovereignty and status.
Ma's office responded by stating that that 'one country, two areas' concept had never been questioned when Lee Teng-hui and Chen Shui-bian of the DPP were president. It said when Tsai was still head of the Mainland Affairs Council in 2003, she had admitted that both Taiwan area and the mainland area fell under the framework of the Republic of China's constitution.
But the pro-independence camp continues to heap scorn on Ma, with some politicians and civic groups vowing to organise demonstrations against him.
Su Huan-chih, a former magistrate of the southern county of Tainan and a contender for the DPP chairmanship, recently seized the opportunity to promote himself by announcing a plan to rally 100,000 people for a protest against Ma on May 20 - when Ma is to be sworn in for a second four-year term.
Some pundits theorise that the mention of 'one China, two areas' in Beijing was Ma's way of testing the political waters.
'If Beijing can accept the concept, it could possibly become part of the content in Ma's inaugural speech on May 20,' said Shaw Chong-hai, dean of the Taipei-based College of Social Sciences at Chinese Culture University. He said the concept actually aims to clearly define the political status of the two sides as equal, which can help resolve political differences and facilitate future cross-strait political talks.
Shaw said that while Beijing might not accept the idea right away, it might not find it too unpalatable since the concept still fell within the 'one China framework'.
In Beijing, Yang Yi said the mainland would not rule out talking with Taiwan about the concept 'as long as the one-China principle is recognised'.
Political scientist Lin Bih-jaw, vice-president of Taiwan's National Chengchi University, said the 'One china' concept could easily be misunderstood because the term 'area' was not precisely defined. 'It would be more precise to replace 'area' with 'legal territory' to avoid twisting of the word in the face of the current political climate' in Taiwan, he said.
Su Chi, a former secretary general of Taiwan's National Security Council who now heads a local think tank, said it ws necessary for Taiwanese people to have confidence in using the formal title of Republic of China, instead of thinking that 'China' meant the People's Republic of China, whenever 'one China' was mentioned.
Lin Wen-cheng, a professor at the Institute of China and Asia-Pacific Studies at National Sun Yat-sen University in the southern city of Kaohsiung, asked the Ma government to prepare for cross-strait political dialogue, saying it would have to confront the issue sooner or later.
Ma Ying-jeou's percentage of the vote in Taiwan's presidential election in January