President Ma Ying-jeou’s idea of a cross-strait truce is the boldest diplomatic move in decades of competition between Taiwan and China.
Under Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) and Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) administrations, both sides of the Taiwan Strait poured tremendous resources into competing for allies and battling over Taiwan’s participation in key international organizations. Taiwan has thus been burdened with the labels “money diplomacy,” “spendthrift diplomacy” and “suitcase diplomacy” that refer to inappropriate use of financial aid.
Since taking office in May, Ma has placed normalization of cross-strait relations at the top of his agenda. Other foreign policy has apparently been sidelined largely because of his attempts to forge a quick resumption of dialogue, accelerate cross-strait cooperation and pave the way for this month’s visit by Association for Relations Across the Taiwan Strait Chairman Chen Yunlin.
The goal of a truce, Ma has said, is to urge Beijing to yield international room to Taiwan.
The fact that China’s rise enjoys mainstream acceptance in international society means that Taiwan cannot afford to compete with Beijing in a zero-sum game of maintaining diplomatic allies. The underlining political consideration for Ma is to avoid more diplomatic setbacks that might jeopardize both cross-strait relations and his pursuit of a good economic record for his re-election campaign.
China initially responded with goodwill to Ma’s attempts at rapprochement by turning down Paraguay’s offer for diplomatic recognition, sending Chen to Taipei amid strong opposition from the pan-green camp and allowing former KMT chairman Lien Chan to attend this year’s APEC leaders’ summit.
There is ongoing and intense debate among Chinese decision-makers on whether to agree to Ma’s request that Taiwan gain observer status at the World Health Assembly. But there are no guarantees that Ma’s concessions will translate into China’s willingness to adopt an open-door policy on Taiwan’s international participation. Even Ma has said this, and he has mooted the possibility of both sides reengaging in “cross-strait diplomatic crossfire.”
A diplomatic truce should proceed with preparation and caution rather than electoral considerations and wishful thinking.
But there are downsides to Ma seeking a diplomatic truce.
First, China’s intentions remain unclear, and some of Taiwan’s allies are preparing to raise the stakes if Taipei’s strategy fails. No contingency plans are on the table if the temporary truce is broken, meaning a domino effect or chain reaction might occur.
Second, morale of diplomats may be undermined by a lack of guidelines on how to gauge interaction between Taiwan’s allies and China during a truce. And even a successful truce that addressed the problem of wavering allies would not necessarily be a green light for the bid to attend the World Health Assembly.
Worse, Beijing could take advantage of Ma’s anxiousness to boost fragile domestic support through a short-term breakthrough, thereby reducing his bargaining space when the time for political negotiations arrives.
Ma has ruled out the possibilities of “one country on each side” of the Strait as advocated by his predecessors, as well as the formulas of “dual recognition,” “two Chinas” and “special state-to-state relations” by redefining cross-strait ties as a constitutionally “region to region” relationship. This gives Beijing more leeway to sell its “one China” principle on the global stage.
For a diplomatic truce to work, or for deleterious effects to be minimized if it fails, the Ma administration must act according to the following principles.
Don’t push too hard or make too many concessions before understanding an opponent’s thinking. Don’t proceed with a cross-strait policy through haste or based on electoral constraints. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs must draw up rules of engagement and a code of conduct while preparing for the worst-case scenario: retaliation by allies.
Most importantly, Ma must respect and incorporate voices from the opposition without bypassing legislative oversight and democratic checks and balances.
We experienced an anomalous period when Ma [Ying-jeou], Obama, and Xi were in office where relations between Taipei, Washington, and Beijing were largely constructive. Some of the muscle memory in Washington atrophied a bit. With the elections of Tsai [Ing-wen] and Trump, things have reverted back to the historical mean of increased sensitivity around Taiwan.