Whatever the motive, anyone who suggests that Taiwan could enter into negotiations on a peace accord with authoritarian China on an equal footing is delusional.
Nearly eight years ago, when Ma Ying-jeou was seeking re-election for a second term, the leader of the Kuomintang (KMT) proposed signing a peace agreement with China to ensure long-term peace across the Taiwan Strait. Facing an immediate backlash, Ma hurried to clarify that his re-election bid should not be construed as a referendum on a peace agreement, and recognized that majority public support, perhaps in the form of a national plebiscite, would be necessary for any move in that direction.
Ma was re-elected in the 2012 elections, defeating Tsai Ing-wen of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP). But the touted peace agreement with China never came close to materializing: amid fears that his government was getting too close to Beijing, President Ma’s proposal went nowhere, and hopes of political talks with Beijing were buried for good after the Sunflower Movement took over the legislature in March 2014. (To his credit, back in 2011 Ma said he doubted a peace agreement could be accomplished during his second term, largely due to divisions within Taiwanese society.)
With elections approaching again in 2020, members of the KMT are once again mooting the idea of seeking a peace agreement with China. This time around, however, the context is much different. Back in 2011, President Ma’s talk about a peace accord occurred in times of high hopes, at the height of a “golden decade” which many described as the best cross-Strait environment in six decades. Today, suggestions of a peace agreement with China are being made at a time of high tensions in the Taiwan Strait.
And some, perhaps carelessly, are of the opinion that the January 2020 elections would in and of themselves constitute a referendum on whether to initiate talks on a peace agreement with Beijing — in other words, that a KMT victory in those elections would be sufficient and thereby obviate any need for a subsequent referendum on the matter. Lu Shiow-yen, the KMT mayor of Taichung, is of that opinion. KMT Chairman We Den-yih, who is believed to be seeking his party’s nomination for next year’s elections, has also proposed that a new KMT administration should seek a peace accord with China. However, after strong reactions by the DPP administration, which has proposed amendments to the Act Governing Relations between the People of the Taiwan Area and the Mainland Area that would require a referendum on a peace accord, Wu has since stated that he might not object to a referendum on the subject following a hypothetical KMT victory next year.
Wu’s position is therefore similar to President Ma’s back in 2011, while others like Lu are already seeking to transcend it. The interplay between those two positions (election as referendum versus elections + referendum), and the Tsai administration’s decision to seek a legal amendment which would necessitate a referendum, is nevertheless moving the goal posts: what was deemed a non-starter in the 2012 elections — talk of a peace agreement with China — will now be made more acceptable, and deemed less alarming, by the fact that a subsequent referendum would have to be held. While Lu’s maximalist position is unlikely to gain currency, those who support holding a referendum on the subject are now seen as the “responsible” politicians (propose a very bad option alongside a bad one, and suddenly the latter doesn’t look too terrible anymore). A referendum would act as a buffer; the threat would appear less immediate, and a KMT victory less threatening. What this process risks accomplishing is the normalization of the idea of a peace agreement. Inadvertently, by insisting on laws requiring a referendum, the DPP may have reduced fears over the implications of a KMT victory in the 2020 elections.
Wu has been quick to defend his proposed peace agreement against accusations that it would constitute capitulation to China. “It’s definitely not a pact of surrender to China,” he said earlier this week, adding he hoped the DPP would not engage in a “smear campaign” against it. The problem with that proposition is that even if Wu, and others in the KMT camp, have the best intentions in the world when proposing a peace treaty with Beijing — lasting peace and a modus vivendi with China that protects Taiwan’s sovereignty — they would never be treated as equals at the negotiating table with their counterparts from the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). The Taiwan side will always be the weaker party in any negotiations on the subject, as Hong Kong’s fate has made perfectly clear. Consequently, Taiwan would be forced into concessions that inevitably would erode the nation’s sovereignty and its ability to defend itself against Chinese encroachment.
Successful negotiations would be contingent on both sides agreeing to different interpretations of the text and to a certain amount of flexibility in implementation. That, as Xi made clear in his Jan. 2 address to Taiwanese compatriots, is no longer viable.
At the top of the list of Beijing’s requests would be for Taiwan to end arms procurement from the U.S. and for Washington to cease extending security guarantees to its longstanding democratic ally. Only after this would Beijing presumably “renounce” to use force against Taiwan. It would be pure folly, with Xi Jinping in charge, to take such promises at face value.
While not unification per se, a peace agreement would be a stepping stone toward that goal; and although some proponents of a peace accord have argued that this could buy time for Taiwan, or at a minimum help it secure the best terms possible before the inevitable occurs, successful negotiations would be contingent on both sides agreeing to different interpretations of the text and to a certain amount of flexibility in implementation. That, as Xi made clear in his Jan. 2 address to Taiwanese compatriots, is no longer viable. In his view, as the central authority Beijing is in a position to dictate, and dictate it will. So this, too, has changed since 2011, when Ma often was able to get away with his claim that he had things under control by insisting that the two sides agreed to disagree on certain maters, that they could have different interpretations on a few fundamentals. This no longer is possible, and any KMT leader who argues to the contrary is deceiving him/herself along with the Taiwanese public.
Under such circumstances, a peace accord would serve to “lock in” Taiwan and impose a future course that it would be extremely difficult to deviate from. Any deviation, such as a government in Taipei pulling out of the accord, or mass protests threatening progress toward unification, would immediately eliminate any “promise” by Beijing not to use force against (a by then much weakened) Taiwan.
Lastly, we would be remiss if we did not say a few words about the very high likelihood that Beijing would seek to exert maximum influence not only to interfere with the 2020 elections, but even more so in any subsequent referendum on a peace agreement. Besides the high possibility of interference, disinformation and “sharp power,” it is easy to imagine how the outcome of a plebiscite on the subject could be exploited by Beijing to its advantage: a vote in favor could be used to argue support for unification, while a vote against could reinforce the view that the Taiwanese, by opposing “peace,” are the real troublemakers in the Taiwan Strait.
We can only speculate about the motives behind the proposal by KMT would-be presidential candidates for a peace accord with China. Some may indeed be animated by a desire to secure the best terms possible for Taiwan and to reduce the risks of war in the Taiwan Strait. Others may be driven by reasons far less noble. Regardless of their intentions, all should be aware that entering into negotiations with an authoritarian regime that does not recognize the existence of Taiwan and/or the Republic of China, that has a long track record of breaking its promises, and which regards Taiwan as one of many pieces in a puzzle whose completion would signify the removal of U.S. influence in the Asia-Pacific, is an extraordinarily dangerous proposition.
Top photo: Tsai Ing-wen official Facebook page.
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