Xi Jinping’s Taiwan comments likely to scuttle talks, analysts say

  • A recent speech by the Chinese president used a ‘one-China’ principle that redefined the cross-strait understanding
  • A different emphasis and different interpretation by Beijing and Taipei
PUBLISHED : Sunday, 06 January, 2019, 10:04am
UPDATED : Sunday, 06 January, 2019, 2:27pm

Official talks between Taiwan and mainland China are unlikely to be held in the foreseeable future now that an understanding intended to allow the two sides to ditch their differences has been redefined, leaving the self-ruled island with no room to manoeuvre, observers said.

In a speech on Wednesday to mark the 40th anniversary of Beijing’s call to end military confrontation across the Taiwan Strait, Chinese President Xi Jinping said the two sides should begin talks on reunification to end the decades of animosity.

But in laying the “1992 consensus” as the sole foundation for talks with the self-ruled island, Xi rephrased it as an understanding that “the two sides of the Taiwan Strait belong to one China, jointly seeking to achieve cross-strait unification”, which was a departure from existing versions of the consensus, analysts and officials in Taiwan said.

Xi also asked Taiwan to select representatives from various sectors for “peaceful unification” talks on using the “one country, two systems” approach.

“What Xi said fully exposed Beijing’s intention to destroy the Republic of China and its ambition to take over Taiwan,” Chen Ming-tung, head of Taiwan’s Mainland Affairs Council, said at a news conference on Thursday in Taipei.

Xi’s version of the consensus sharply differed from that formerly held by Beijing and now held by the mainland-friendly opposition Kuomintang (KMT) in Taiwan, he said.

According to Beijing’s former version, the 27-year-old consensus allows the two sides to continue to talk as long as they recognise that there is only one China. It was later referred to as the one-China principle.

But in the KMT’s view, it is more than just one China: the two sides can have their own interpretation of what that China stands for. To the KMT, that means “Republic of China”, the island’s official title, and to Beijing, it stands for the People’s Republic of China.

But Chen, who has researched cross-strait issues related to the consensus for two decades, said the two sides actually did not have any consensus or tacit agreement in 1992.

“The two sides, represented by the KMT and Beijing, held talks in Hong Kong in 1992 to discuss document accreditation and public notary, but their talks were hampered by thorny political disputes,” he said, adding that in the end the KMT side came up with two options to try to resolve the dispute. The first was a paper version now used by the KMT and the second was a verbal understanding with similar content.

“The mainland side did not accept the first version and left Hong Kong. The KMT later sent the second version to China, which set aside the issue without responding,” Chen said. “Therefore no consensus was actually reached at that time.”

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At least two books, including one by the late Taiwanese business tycoon Koo Chen-fu – who led the Straits Exchange Foundation, which represents the island in talks with the mainland in the absence of formal ties – confirmed that there was no consensus reached. In his book, Koo described the term as an “understanding” that was later conveniently used by the two sides to carry on their non-political talks in the 1990s without being dragged down by political differences.

“In 2000, former Mainland Affairs Council head Su Chi [of the KMT] invented the term ‘1992 consensus’ in an attempt to help facilitate then president Chen Shui-bian [of the Democratic Progressive Party] and his administration’s dealing with the mainland,” Chen said.

Su has admitted that he came up with the term before the KMT transferred power to the independence-leaning Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) with the purpose of keeping cross-strait talks and exchanges going. However, Chen later said that no consensus was reached on the definition of “one China” and that the “1992 meeting” would be a more appropriate term to describe the conference.

“The wording ‘each side with its own interpretation’ of the ‘one China’ principle had been used from 1992 to 2000,” Su said in 2006. “But the mainland didn’t like the ‘each side with its own interpretation’ part and the DPP government didn’t like the part that said ‘one China’.”

“On account of these differences and the fact they could have led to more cross-strait tension after the DPP took power, I suggested the new term as a common point that was acceptable to both sides so that Taiwan and China could keep up cross-strait exchanges,” Su said.

It was until Ma Ying-jeou of the KMT was elected president in 2008 and adopted an engagement policy with Beijing that the mainland began acknowledging the term “1992 consensus” as a foundation to develop warmer relations, though Beijing has not mentioned the different interpretation element the KMT has emphasised.

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“It is very important for this part [different interpretation] to be mentioned because it means Taiwan will not be swallowed up by the mainland, which serves to facilitate exchanges across the Taiwan Strait,” Ma said on Thursday.

During a meeting in Singapore in 2015, he said he told Xi that he could rest assured the different interpretation of “one China” would not result in Taiwan and the mainland becoming two countries, or one Taiwan and one China, as it is against the constitution of the Republic of China.

Current KMT leader Wu Den-yi, however, said the consensus mentioned by Xi is no longer the one recognised by the Kuomintang.

“While General Secretary Xi talks about the consensus, it is not what we have recognised. President Tsai Ing-wen’s denial of the existence of the consensus would not make things better,” Wu said on Friday.

Only the separate interpretations of “one China” could ensure the two sides continue peacefully developing relations, he said.

On Wednesday, Tsai rejected Xi’s overture, saying her administration had never accepted the “1992 consensus” out of concern that the so-called consensus defined by Beijing meant only “one China” and one country, two systems.

Beijing, which considers Taiwan a wayward province awaiting reunification by force if necessary, has suspended official exchanges and talks with the island since Tsai became president in 2016 and has refused to accept the consensus.

Analysts said Xi’s definition of the consensus serves only to shut the door to negotiations since Tsai and the DPP will not hold talks under the consensus.

“Those who believe in the consensus will now find their dream shattered as there is not even any room for separate interpretation,” Lai I-chung, former vice-president of Taiwan Thinktank, a public policy research institute based in Taipei.

Analysts said it will also be difficult for the KMT to use Xi’s consensus to hold talks with Beijing even if the KMT regains power in the 2020 presidential elections.

An opinion poll conducted in Taiwan on Thursday showed that 84 per cent of those surveyed did not accept the consensus under Beijing’s one-China principle, which they regard as wiping out Taiwan’s sovereignty.