Beijing braces for post-Ma Taiwan
Cross Strait relations) won’t be smooth sailing all the way from now on.” Those were the stern words Chen Deming ( ), president of China’s Association for Relations Across the Taiwan Straits (ARATS), delivered at the talk between cross-strait top negotiators in Fuzhou, Fujian yesterday, an occasion usually marked by optimistic comments of “cross-strait brotherhood” from the both sides.
It was the 11th talk between Beijing and Taipei top officials since 2008, when cross-strait ties warmed under President Ma Ying-jeou’s detente policy. Since then, both sides have made several key agreements, including the landmark Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement (ECFA) and the controversial Trade in Services Agreement. The latest talk saw the signing of the pacts on double taxation avoidance and aviation safety yesterday.
Even officials from both sides are trying to rush in another round of negotiations before Ma’s tenure ends. Chen, the top Chinese negotiator, however, had some grave things to say. He stressed that things might be as good as it gets now, a thinly veiled warning for the worsening of cross-strait ties after the 2016 presidential election in Taiwan. While expressing that the “family-like” relations between mainland China and Taiwan will not change regardless of the result of the election, Chen quoted Chinese leader Xi Jinping in stressing that “The ‘1992 Consensus’ is our political common ground; deny the ‘1992 Consensus’ and the mountains will shake.”
Chen’s warning were reinforced later by China’s Taiwan Affairs Office (TAO) Director Zhang Zhijun ( ), who said that “all thing we have achieved now could collapse” without the “1992 Consensus,” hinting that signed crossstrait agreements could be upended if Taiwan denies the consensus of “one China, different interpretations.”
These tough words from Chinese officials are rather less an attempt to influence the 2016 election than a resignation to a post-Ma Taiwan that is possibly less China-friendly. While Zhang did call for Taiwanese people “to make a wise choice,” the officials’ warnings were aimed for the next administration. Since the 1996 Taiwan Strait Crisis, Chinese officials have realized that threats only generate the opposite of their desired effect from defiant Taiwanese voters. Beijing has learned to hold its fire (both literally and metaphorically) in campaign season. The decision to use strong words resembles not a change of tactics but a realization that the result of the 2016 election is already a foregone conclusion.
In fact, no matter the result of the election, cross-strait ties will enter into the “deep-sea zone” after the low-hanging fruits of economic agreements have been picked. As early as 2013, the Chinese leader Xi showed his impatience on cross-strait talk progress, saying it was time for political talks “to promote the peaceful development of cross-strait ties and peaceful unification.” Even by the standard of President Ma, who suggested that it will take decades for both side to reach the point to consider unification, Xi’s timetable would be impossibly rushed.
While even a possible government by the pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party will be pragmatic enough not to undo the progress in cross-strait economic ties made during Ma’s tenure, new ground will be hard to achieve. The current trend of localization in Taiwanese politics has simply made cross-strait relations too much of a toxic issue for politicians. More importantly, as the Chinese economy slows down, Beijing will have less leverage to offer tempting deals to Taiwan or to placate hard-liners back home.
The warming of cross-strait relations is one of the key events in the past decade in Asia. While there are arguments as to whether the means the Ma administration has employed justify the ends, it is undeniable that the lessening of tensions in what was once one of the most dangerous crises in the world is welcome in not only Taiwan, but China too. When negotiators meet for future rounds of meetings, they will be working under different and probably much harder circumstances. They will face pressure from all sides — the worst kind would be those from home. They will need wisdom and principles to continue the talks to bring peace and prosperity to the region.