There was a lot of media attention given to the meetings that China’s President Xi Jinping had with President Obama and Japan’s Prime Minister Abe Shinzo on the edges of the APEC summit. Much less notice was given to the encounter that occurred between China’s and Taiwan’s policy officials responsible for their government’s relations with each other: Zhang Zhijun, director of the PRC’s Taiwan Affairs Office (TAO) and Wang Yu-chi, chairman of the ROC’s Mainland Affairs Office (MAC).
The context for these meetings was important. First of all, Taiwan’s President Ma Ying-jeou had been very eager to meet Xi Jinping at the time of APEC, but to no avail. Beijing was unwilling to agree to an APEC-related meeting, because of the international character of the venue and what that might say about the island’s international identity. While China is willing to consider a Xi-Ma meeting under other circumstances, a number of issues must be resolved before that happens (on those impediments, see my recent blog post. Consequently MAC Chairman Wang and TAO Director Zhang are the highest sitting government officials to meet each other publicly (and they only did so for the first time in February).
Second, relations across the Taiwan Strait are stuck. Since President Ma took office in 2008, Beijing and Taipei had made significant progress in normalizing, institutionalizing, and liberalizing their economic relationship. The keystone of that effort is the Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement (ECFA) concluded in June 2010, which achieved some “early-harvest” liberalization and promised future market-opening agreements on specific topics. This spring, however, the draft agreement on trade in services met a buzz-saw of opposition in Taiwan’s Legislative Yuan, led by the opposition Democratic Progressive Party and the student-led Sunflower activist movement. Approval of the agreement is thus on hold, and it is unclear when or whether it will ever be approved. The stalemate does not mean necessarily that the public as a whole has turned against deeper economic interdependence with the Mainland, but it does signify increasing difficulties in getting ratified new understanding that touch on domestic business interests.
Third, there is anxiety in both China and Taiwan about the future of their relationship. Beijing had hoped for more progress by now, including on political matters, and there is some feeling on the Mainland that the Taiwan side is very good at capturing the benefits of cross-Strait relations but unwilling to address the issues most on China’s agenda. That impatience betrays a misperception: for Taiwan, ties with China are not simply transactional; they entail more fundamental concerns about the island’s current identity and long-term future. Specifically, President Xi rattled public opinion on the island in late September when he appeared to lay new stress on Taiwan’s ultimate unification with the Mainland and avoiding a mention of the “1992 consensus,” a loose understanding that has been the basis for the interaction and agreements between the two sides during Ma Ying-jeou’s presidency. (Ma’s understanding of the 1992 Consensus is that there is one China and for Taiwan it is the Republic of China. Beijing does not accept that interpretation but it has been willing to tolerate it so far.)
So it was no doubt reassuring to at least some observers on Taiwan that the 1992 consensus was a focus of discussion in the Wang-Zhang meeting. And it should remain so. The formula has provided the basis for each side to reassure the other about its intentions, at least for the near term, and to expand the areas of cooperation where mutual benefit arguably exists. It was after Ma Ying-jeou formally accepted the 1992 Consensus in 2008 that Taiwan’s Straits Exchange Foundation (SEF) and China’s Association for Relations Across the Taiwan Strait (ARATS), which the respective governments designated to be their interface, resumed meetings after a decade of not meeting. Moreover, the 1992 Consensus has enabled SEF and ARATS to negotiate agreements on behalf of the Beijing and Taipei governments and working-level officials to interact on a regular basis.
There is actually no inconsistency in China’s position concerning Taiwan. Unification remains its ultimate goal, and one-country, two systems remains its only formula for unification. Beijing is not unaware that both the goal and the formula have little political support in Taiwan, for a variety of reasons. Although each side has its own understanding of what the 1992 Consensus means, it has been useful enough to secure what progress has occurred so far, in the areas of economics and culture. What basis the two sides might adopt should they ever move on to political and security issues is very unclear at this point. What is clear is that cross-Strait progress has been and will be a function of how much Beijing takes Taiwan public opinion into account as it formulates its policies going forward.