Wise words in short supply as Trump, Xi and Tsai get off on the wrong foot in 2019

  • Alice Wu says Taiwan’s Tsai Ing-wen made a provocative New Year’s Day speech on cross-strait relations following Trump’s commitment to arms sales to the island
  • China’s Xi Jinping responded with fighting talk, urging Taipei to accept ‘one country, two systems’, even though Hong Kong is still struggling with it
PUBLISHED : Monday, 07 January, 2019, 3:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 07 January, 2019, 3:00am

As if it wasn’t sad enough that Christmas was banned in parts of China, the most powerful man in the free world had to ruin a seven-year-old’s Christmas. And “peace on earth, goodwill to men” is a message lost on Beijing, Taipei and Washington, to judge by other developments.

On New Year’s Eve, US President Donald Trump signed into law the Asia Reassurance Initiative Act, which includes a section reaffirming the US’ commitment to sell arms to Taiwan – which is exactly the button to push to get China to go ballistic.

Over in Taipei, although President Tsai Ing-wen was still smarting from the disastrous election in November, she felt compelled to add fuel to the fire started by Trump. In a bit of grandstanding on New Year’s Day, she gave Beijing a lesson about handling cross-strait relations and respecting an electorate’s choices. The Democratic Progressive Party’s defeat should not be taken to mean the Taiwanese were “choosing to give up our sovereignty”, she said.

In a matter of hours, two red lines were crossed. Arms sales to Taiwan and the island’s sovereignty. These were two deliberate acts of provocation to ring in the new year.

The significance of raising hell on the 40th anniversary of China’s landmark statement, in which it declared an end to artillery bombardment of Taiwan, should not be missed. These were not gestures of goodwill. Unsurprising, President Xi Jinping responded by urging Taiwan to accept a Hong Kong-style “one country, two systems” framework and reminding Taipei that Beijing would not abandon the use of force.

Why China will wait until 2030 to retake Taiwan

Hong Kong is not exactly a shining example of “one country, two systems”. Taiwan’s Mainland Affairs Council has been keeping count of the alleged instances of China failing to honour Hong Kong’s Basic Law, so Xi’s mention of Hong Kong was never going to convince Taiwan.

In fact, “one country, two systems” has been a problematic proposition, not only for Taipei and Hong Kong, but also for Beijing. In 2014, the State Council had to release a 15,500-word white paper on the “accurate” understanding of “one country, two systems”. To Beijing, Hong Kong has yet to “comprehensively and accurately” implement the Basic Law. Here in Hong Kong, we’re still grappling with what that might mean in practice. And yet, “one country, two systems” remains the take-it-or-leave-it solution to the Taiwan problem.

Xi’s speech also marked the four decades since the US switched diplomatic recognition from Taiwan to China at the beginning of 1979, and US and Chinese leaders Jimmy Carter and Deng Xiaoping met. Carter recently openly worried about the direction of bilateral relations. He noted that, 40 years ago, he and Deng knew they were “advancing the cause of peace”, and called on current leaders to be stabilising forces in the world.

Time to use Article 23 as a bargaining chip

Obsessions with greatness have not made this world a better place, nor made for constructive relationships. This might be a good time to remember Deng’s pragmatism back in those days. In 1978, when the subject of China’s unresolved territorial dispute with Japan came up at a press conference, Deng famously said: “It is OK to temporarily shelve such an issue if our generation does not have enough wisdom to resolve it. The next generation will have more wisdom, and I am sure they will eventually find a way acceptable to both sides.” What a fine example of statesmanship, and wisdom.

Alice Wu is a political consultant and a former associate director of the Asia Pacific Media Network at UCLA