1992 consensus between Beijing and Taipei appears here to stay

The 1992 consensus that steers cross-strait ties has been a blessing and sometimes curse, but both Beijing and Taipei indicate it's here to stay

PUBLISHED : Friday, 14 December, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 14 December, 2012, 3:59am

When Su Chi, then the head of Taiwan's Mainland Affairs Council coined the term "1992 consensus" in 2000 few could have expected it to become the guiding principle for Beijing's own cross-strait policies.

Come the morning of November 8 this year, when the Communist Party kicked off its 18th national congress in Beijing to pave the way for the next leadership, outgoing general secretary President Hu Jintao delivered a lengthy report, part of which touched on the direction of the mainland's cross-strait policy. "The two sides of the Taiwan Strait should uphold the common stance of opposing Taiwanese independence and of following the '1992 consensus'," Hu said in his report.

The tacit understanding reached in 1992 holds that both sides recognise there is only one China, but each can have its own interpretation of what China stands for. Despite the straightforward definition, debate has continued over what the consensus means.

To Beijing, "what China stands for" means the People's Republic of China, and to Taipei, it is the Republic of China, Taiwan's official title.

Soon after Hu's report was delivered, pundits and officials across the Taiwan Strait agreed the consensus would become a policy guideline for the new mainland leadership, which will take office early next year.

It was the first time "1992 consensus" had been featured prominently in one of the party's most important official documents.

"This represents our serious emphasis of the '1992 consensus' as an important component of the political basis for peaceful development of cross-strait relations," said Wang Yi, director of the Taiwan Affairs Office under the mainland's State Council.

Wang views the consensus as significant from several angles - it insists on the "one China" principle; it allows both sides to put aside differences and seek out common views; and it establishes a political foundation for the development of cross-strait ties.

Wang said that regardless of how Taiwan's political situation might change, the mainland views the consensus as the foundation for engaging all political parties in Taiwan.

"The core of the consensus is for the two sides to acknowledge that the mainland and Taiwan belong to one China," he said.

Sun Yafu, Wang's deputy, has previously said the 1992 understanding and the "China framework" it created would bolster trust and allow both sides to pursue common causes and shelve differences, opening up space for peaceful development.

Taiwan and the mainland have been at loggerheads since late Kuomintang leader Chiang Kai-shek's government was driven off the mainland by the Communists and took up refuge in Taiwan at the end of the civil war in 1949.

Taipei and Beijing held three rounds of dialogue between 1991 and 1992, which led to the high-profile talks in Singapore in 1993. Further rounds were put on hold in late 1995 due to Beijing's wrath over then president Lee Teng-hui's visit to the United States, a trip seen by the mainland as an attempt to put Taiwanese sovereignty in the spotlight.

In 1998, the two sides resumed talks briefly, but Beijing suspended them again after Lee proposed classifying Taiwan and the mainland as separate states. Since then, cross-strait ties have gone from cool to sour under former leader Chen Shui-bian, of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), during his eight years in office from 2000.

The current Kuomintang leadership in Taipei values the consensus as a way to reduce tension stirred up by Chen. When Ma Ying-jeou took over in 2008, the consensus became a plank in his policy for engaging Beijing, leading to warmer ties and new rounds of talks.

"The consensus has served as the foundation for the consultations across the Taiwan Strait but has never indented the ROC's sovereignty," Ma said at a seminar in Taipei last month marking the 20th anniversary of the 1992 consensus.

Ma stressed the importance of the "respective interpretations of the term 'one China'".

He said the different interpretations of the consensus had allowed Taipei and Beijing to temporarily shelve the sovereignty question and focus on practical issues, yielding, for instance, 18 largely economic agreements over the past four years.

While the consensus is seen as the foundation for further interaction between the two sides, there was a time when both sides denied its existence.

The consensus was originally a verbal, tacit understanding based on a proposal made by Taipei during a meeting by negotiators on both sides in Hong Kong in October 1992. Nothing was written down, but Beijing gave its consent a month or so later.

Initially, Beijing ignored the part about difference of interpretations, and stressed only the "one China" principle. After 1999, enraged by Lee, Beijing stopped mentioning the understanding.

When the DPP took power in Taiwan the next year, it denied a consensus ever existed, citing the absence of a formal agreement.

In 2006, Lee, who had become the spiritual leader of the hardcore pro-independence Taiwan Solidarity Union, publicly slammed the consensus as a fiction, prompting Su Chi to defend the term he coined and say the DPP administration could use it to break the cross-strait deadlock.

Su reportedly told Chen, who would become president a month later, the two sides had a "1992 consensus" as their foundation for talks.

Su later said the two sides had the consensus as their basis to resume talks and the term summed up only what had happened in 1992 - a view the DPP refused to accept, which has also been cited as a major reason why it failed to return to power after Ma's victory in 2008.

Concern about the DPP's ability to maintain the cross-strait stability has been cited as a key reason why former DPP chairwoman Tsai Ing-wen lost to Ma in January's presidential poll.

But after some brief soul-searching, the DPP has stuck with its denial of the existence of the consensus, despite calls by some leaders for changes, including former premier Frank Hsieh Chang-ting, who is pushing for the party to accept his idea of a "constitutionally one China", a concept based on Taiwan's constitution that the Republic of China represents all of China.

"With the consensus being written into the mainland's official document, it will become a political basis for Xi Jinping to deal with cross-strait relations when he is mainland president," said Dr George Tsai Wei, an expert on cross-strait relations and professor of Chinese Culture University in Taipei.

In that sense, the consensus should remain important in Taiwan's next presidential election in 2016, he said, something the DPP should take seriously.

Zhang Nianchi, director of the Shanghai-based Institute of East Asia Studies, said Hu had also developed a new meaning for the 1992 consensus that Xi could follow.

"[Hu] has called for making reasonable arrangements for cross-strait ties under the special condition the country is yet to be reunified," Zhang said.

Taiwanese pundits and officials, however, see this as Beijing's attempt to push for political dialogue to pave the way for future cross-strait unity, a view Wang, of the Taiwan Affairs Office, rejected, given the mainland favours resolving easy issues first before tackling tough ones.

Meanwhile, Ma has said political dialogue is not an urgent issue - instead, he will focus on deepening cross-strait exchanges in various fields, swapping representative offices and conducting a review of the current framework governing cross-strait exchanges and relations.