Beijing’s intransigence, and not Taipei’s refusal to fall into a trap, is the source of instability in bilateral relations.
It has become a common refrain since sometime in 2016 that relations between Taiwan and China have deteriorated due to the Tsai Ing-wen administration’s refusal to acknowledge the so-called “1992 consensus.” However, that formulation not only stems from a cognitive bias that is unfair to Taiwan, it also suffers from amnesia and ignores Beijing’s stated long-term aims.
According to this unquestioned rule, President Tsai’s refusal to abide by or recognize the “1992 consensus” is the reason why tensions have risen in the Taiwan Strait since her election in January 2016, why Beijing has “license” to punish Taiwan, and why the two sides — at least reports claim — no longer use official high-level channels to communicate with each other. Leaving alone the fact that the “consensus” was, by his own admission, invented by the Kuomintang’s (KMT) Su Chi in 2000, this formulation also imposes a baseline, a natural state from which departure bad things have necessarily happened in the Taiwan Strait.
The problem with this is that, at the very least, it only tells one side of the story: rarely, if ever, is it written that relations in the Taiwan Strait have deteriorated since 2016 because of Beijing’s insistence that Taipei recognize the “1992 consensus,” a formulation which, rather than putting the blame on the Tsai administration, instead makes Beijing’s intransigence the source of instability in bilateral relations.
Before assuming office, Tsai had already made a concession on the term by acknowledging the historical fact that the two sides had met in 1992 and used subsequent dialogue to strengthen the relationship. Indicatively, a number of Chinese academics said on the record that President Tsai would not necessarily have to recognize the “consensus,” in the manner which her predecessor had, for the two sides to maintain cordial relations. For the first few months in her administration, Beijing seemed satisfied with President Tsai’s concession and did not attack her on that subject.
Chinese academics who hitherto had argued that flexibility on the “consensus” might be desirable became oddly silent, as they did on a number of other issues amid an intensifying crackdown on alternative voices in China.
Then something changed, and the “consensus” once again became an issue. And tellingly, Chinese academics who hitherto had argued that flexibility on the “consensus” might be desirable became oddly silent, as they did on a number of other issues amid an intensifying crackdown on alternative voices in China. That brief period showed that it was possible for the two sides to work together without Taipei having to abide by the “consensus.” But for whatever reason, that window closed — and it was Beijing that closed it.
The reason why the Tsai administration has refused to acknowledge or abide by the “1992 consensus” goes well beyond its questionable origins and is instead related to the “one China” framework that lies at its core. While in the past, as under former president Ma Ying-jeou, it was possible for Taipei to append “with different interpretations” to that “one China” (China being either the Republic of China or the People’s Republic of China), such wordplay has suffered a terrible death at the hands of President Xi Jinping, who leaves little doubt as to his views on the matter. In other words, while it may have been acceptable to Taiwan to play along while insisting on different interpretations, there no longer are two interpretations — there is only “one China,” and that is the PRC, of which Taiwan is a mere province or special administrative region.
At best, therefore, the “1992 consensus” has turned into little more than justification for Beijing to crack down on and to isolate Taiwan for the choices it has arrived at by democratic means, and to compel President Tsai to make concessions that can only alienate her constituents. It also retains some utility for the opposition KMT, which continues to argue that acknowledging the “consensus” would help repair the relationship and hopes that such a position would help it in future elections.
The problem is that adherence to the “consensus” would be but a stopgap measure, bringing only temporary relief until Beijing began making new demands that inevitably will involve a further erosion of Taiwan’s sovereignty.
The problem is that adherence to the “consensus” would be but a stopgap measure, bringing only temporary relief until Beijing began making new demands that inevitably will involve a further erosion of Taiwan’s sovereignty. It would be extraordinarily naïve to believe that the appetite of President Xi, whose revisionist ambitions are certainly starting to take shape, would be sated if Taipei — whether ruled by the Democratic Progressive Party or the KMT — once again recognized the so-called “consensus.” He would undoubtedly want more, and for Taipei to give in would open the door to escalatory demands, with the ultimate, invariable and oft-stated goal of unification. At least with its refusal to acknowledge the “consensus,” the Tsai administration makes that the object of contention between the two sides, and not whatever else comes after that. (Supporters of the mainstream KMT already made it clear how unpalatable going beyond the “consensus” was when the party kicked out its initial candidate in the January 2016 elections for arguing just that.)
For the sake of our understanding of the impasse in the Taiwan Strait, it would be helpful if international media and analysts at the very least paid more attention to how they write about the “1992 consensus” issue. The current frequent formulation puts the ball in Taiwan’s camp and legitimizes Beijing’s hardline position, when in reality the impediment to constructive relations is Beijing — because it has already moved the goalposts on “one China,” and because it uses the “consensus” as a way station to ever-escalating demands upon Taiwan, demands that are unacceptable to the majority of its 23.5 million people.
Top photo courtesy of the Tsai Ing-wen official Facebook page.