Beijing has regained some initiative on the Taiwan issue by having two major Taiwan opposition leaders pay homage to the Middle Kingdom. Yet the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) leadership under President Hu Jintao needs to offer Taiwan’s people a lot more than pandas to persuade them that the recent “smile offensive” is little more than old-style united front tactics. And while Taiwan President Chen Shui-bian seems to be on the defensive, the wily pro-separatist politician still has cards left to battle the apparent united front put up by the CCP and the Kuomintang (KMT or Nationalist Party).
It is without doubt that the historic handshake between CCP General Secretary Hu and KMT Chairman Lien Chan late last month has at least temporarily swept aside some negative repercussions of the Anti-Secession Law (ASL) that was hastily passed by the National People’s Congress last March. The ASL, which authorizes the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) to use force against Taiwan in case of the latter’s formal secession from the mainland, has alienated even members of the KMT and the other major opposition party, the People’s First Party (PFP). The statute is also a main reason why the European Union has held up the lifting of the 16-year-old embargo on the sales of arms to China.
The Lien tour – plus PFP Chairman James Soong’s forthcoming visit to Beijing – has provided the Hu leadership with a golden opportunity to focus on the more benign aspects of Beijing’s reunification game plan. Even as Hu, also Chairman of the policy-setting Central Military Commission, has significantly boosted the PLA budget, the new supremo has repeated previous leaders’ pledges that Beijing “pins its hope of reunification on all sectors of the Taiwan people.” At a closed-door meeting on Taiwan issues last autumn, Hu also noted that “we must show Taiwan’s people the concrete benefits they can get through reunification.” Apart from the pandas, Hu has offered Lien, the KMT, and especially Taiwan commercial interests goodies galore. They include reduction of tariffs for the produce of Taiwan’s farmers, permission for more mainlanders to go to Taiwan as tourists, and the possible conclusion of some form of a Closer Economic Partnership Agreement that had been established between the mainland and Hong Kong.
And it is likely that Beijing will give away more dispensations, particularly business benefits, during the visit of Soong, who used to be a stalwart KMT politician until he broke away to form his own party in 2000. After all, an estimated 1 million Taiwan bosses and technicians live and work on the mainland. And Taiwan’s corporate community has put tremendous pressure on President Chen to sue for peace with Beijing – or at least to refrain from provocative gestures such as threatening to revise the Taiwan Constitution to reflect the island’s “statehood status.” Earlier this year, Chen was shocked when Hsu Wen-long, the head of the massive Chi-Mei conglomerate – and a keen supporter of the DPP – suddenly shifted gears by declaring his support for the one-China policy.
So far, Beijing’s time-tested united front tactics seem to have scored initial success. Most opinion polls in Taiwan show that about 55 percent of the population thought Lien had done well on the mainland and that his trip had resulted in the reduction of cross-Strait tension. However, it is important to note that Taiwan is not Hong Kong, whose business community is also extra eager to seek the blessings of CCP authorities. So far, the Hu leadership has yet to demonstrate to Taiwan’s people that Beijing is not merely going after PR effects.
Take for example, the crucial issue of the conclusion of a short- to medium-term peace treaty between the mainland and Taiwan. The joint statement issued by Hu and Chan noted that both sides would study the possibility of such a non-belligerence accord. It is obvious, however, that Beijing has been but play-acting on this issue. A peace pact would violate the CCP leadership’s long-standing stance that it will never forego the right to use force against Taiwan. Moreover, any such agreement would go against the spirit of the just-enacted ASL. And in a press conference after Lien’s visit, Vice-Chief of Beijing’s Taiwan Affairs Office, Wang Zaixi noted that “under the one-China principle, anything can be discussed, including the issue of missiles.” Wang was apparently referring to earlier speculation that Beijing might agree to move away some of the approximately 600 missiles in Fujian and Jiangxi Provinces that are targeting Taiwan. It is common military knowledge, however, that the PLA’s missiles are highly mobile; and that there are missiles aplenty in other provinces capable of hitting the “renegade province.”
It is true, of course, that Beijing’s high-decibel united front and propaganda offensive has had some effect in marginalizing Chen, whose popularity rating recently slipped to 34 percent according to the United Daily News, a Taiwan paper. However, the peculiar circumstances under which the historic Hu-Lien tete-a-tete took place have left Chen with ample ammunition to fire back at both the CCP and the KMT. The official Chinese media has made much of the fact that the CCP and KMT are about to embark on their third round of cooperation (the first two being short-lived and acrimonious alliances mainly to fight the invading Japanese Imperial Army). It is assumed then, that the target of the third CCP-KMT alliance is the DPP, and there are unconfirmed rumors that the Hu leadership has vowed to help the successor of 68-year-old Lien – who is due to step down soon – recapture the Presidential Palace in the 2008 polls. Pundits in Taipei said it would be a no-brainer for Chen to zero in on the fact that Lien – who had lost twice in presidential elections – was but “selling out Taiwan” for the partisan interests of the KMT.
It is noteworthy that in the joint Hu-Lien statement, both sides vowed to carry on the tradition of “party-to-party talks” to solve cross-Strait problems. Perhaps overexcited by the VIP treatment he had received in Beijing, Lien did not mention the fact that the fate of Taiwan must be decided by all of its 23 million residents. And it would be difficult for Lien – or his successors – to argue that Taiwan’s opposition party is a competent authority to discuss the island’s fate with the CCP.
While the visits of Lien and Soong have contributed to the relaxation of cross-Straits tension at least in the short run, the long-term development of mainland-Taiwan ties hinges on interaction among the three major parties: the CCP, the DPP’s Chen and the United States. President Hu has a vested interest in maintaining a relatively cordial cross-Straits atmosphere at least until 2008, when presidential elections are due in Taiwan and Beijing will be holding the Summer Olympics. The CCP stands to garner a bonanza of good will across all of Taiwan’s sectors if it were willing to lower the threshold regarding requirements for DPP cadres visiting the mainland. The TAO reiterated last week that DPP members were welcome on the mainland provided that they would recognize the “1992 consensus” (usually explained as “one China, howsoever interpreted”) and give up the pro-independence clause in the DPP’s charter.
However, much as Chen might want formal dialogue with Beijing – a China trip would substantially lift his political standing in Taiwan – it might be politically suicidal for him to accede to the CCP’s preconditions. The DPP leader has never accepted the “one China principle.” And he has already been subjected to intense fire from more doctrinaire pro-independence elements on the island for allegedly “caving in” to the mainland’s united front tactics by, for example, giving his blessings to Lien’s China tour. Chen, however, is anxiously grooming a successor for the 2008 polls. And to win that crucial election, the DPP has to reposition itself closer to the mainstream of Taiwan public opinion, which wants peace – and more communication with Beijing authorities.
Given Washington’s immense clout in the region, the George W. Bush administration may have what it takes to inject the kind of momentum that could make a Hu-Chen tete-a-tete possible. After the Hu-Lien meeting, the State Department called upon Beijing to consider talking to Taiwan’s ruling party also. And Washington had reportedly urged Chen not to lay obstacles in the way of the China visits of Lien and Soong. While it would be against U.S. interests for Chinese reunification to take place too soon – particularly one that is attained at the expense of the wishes and autonomy of Taiwan’s people – it is to Washington’s advantage that peace be maintained in the Strait. And direct communication between Hu and Chen – and their successors – would at least ensure a state of non-belligerence throughout “reunification talks” that are expected to last a decade or so.
However, the big challenge is that neither Beijing nor Taipei trusts Washington enough for it to play the role of honest broker. Consumed with the obsession that Bush is waging an anti-China containment policy, the Hu leadership is extra wary of Taiwan-related suggestions coming from the U.S. And Chen is paranoid about the possibility – remote as it seems – of Washington selling out Taiwan because of the “pro-China” inclinations of the growing American corporate community that is doing business with the PRC.
Willy Wo-Lap Lam is a Senior Fellow at The Jamestown Foundation as well as a Hong Kong-based journalist and analyst.