Cross-Strait ties will be stable for now

For a start, Tsai has demonstrated her pliability by refraining from provoking the mainland. Her conciliatory gesture is in stark contrast to that of former Taiwanese President Chen Shui-bian’s. Moreover, Tsai is likely to listen to Washington’s words

HONG KONG–Over the past six decades, mainland China’s ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP) had been harboring a grandiose plan — reunification with Taiwan.

Taiwan's new President Tsai Ing-wen speaks at her inauguration ceremony in Taipei on May 20

Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen speaks at her inauguration ceremony in Taipei on May 20

In 1949, when CCP defeated rival Kuomintang (KMT) in a civil war and took over the mainland, KMT retreated to Taiwan. Nevertheless, reunification is such a ticklish task that every tiny step counts. Since then, generations of mainland top leaders had been shouldering the historic mission of leaving a legacy behind on Taiwan affairs.

Mao Zedong, who led CCP in overthrowing his rival Chiang Kai-shek’s Kuomintang government, was tempted to attain immediate reunification through military means. From August 23 to October 5, 1958, he ordered a fierce attack against Taiwan’s outlying island of Kinmen (Quemoy).

Political gossips had it that Chiang even contemplated the possibility of abandoning the island off the mainland coast, isolating the mainland completely from Taiwan. Fearing that Taiwan would spin off from the mainland, Mao ordered firing shells to Kinmen on alternate day, and later on alternate weekend.

These futile bombardments were meant to convince Mao’s bellicose generals that reunification by force was still within his agenda.

Deng Xiaoping adopted a different approach. Soon after Deng became the paramount leader of CCP, he proposed the famous “three links” in 1979. They include opening up postal, transportation (especially airline), and trade links between the mainland and Taiwan, with the goal of unifying China and Taiwan. Most of his plans have materialized except reunification.

In the 1990s, then CCP secretary-general Jiang Zemin tried hard to discuss a “reunification timetable” with Taiwan. Although his efforts failed due to Taiwan’s reluctance, Jiang eventually earned the “consolation prize” of “initiating a semi-official political cross-Strait discussion.”

When Hu Jintao succeeded Jiang, the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) came to power in Taiwan with a pro-independence stance. Hu adjusted his Taiwan strategy by initiating a regular communications platform with KMT waiting for its resurgence. At last, Hu’s patience paid off.

KMT’s Ma Ying-jeou became Taiwan’s president in 2008, and the mainland inked several pacts including trade agreements, cementing mainland’s influence on the island.

Soon after Xi Jinping inherited power from Hu in 2012, he made it clear that reunification is among his “China dream”, alongside the tall order of winning the World Cup championship.

However, Xi is confronted with a problem. Tsai Ing-wen, from the pro-independence DPP, was sworn in as Taiwan President on May 20.

For mainland China, Tsai is no stranger. Back in 1999, when Jiang Zemin was pressing ahead with cross-Strait political talks over a “reunification time table”, Tsai had assisted then Taiwan President Lee Teng-hui in preparing a controversial speech, describing cross-Strait relations as a “state-to-state” or “special state-to-state” one.

The mainland denounced the statement as designed to “split the country”, and called off almost all cross-Strait contacts to indicate their displeasure.

Tsai was also in charge of the Mainland Affairs Council, the island’s top mainland policy agency, and served as premier during Chen Shui-bian Era.

In her inauguration speech on May 20, Tsai  tried to soften her earlier stance by saying “I respect the historic fact”, making reference to the 1992 cross-Strait talk. Tsai reiterated that mainland affairs would be dealt with in accordance with the island’s legislation.

At the core of these laws to which Tsai attributed is the 1992 legislation titled “Act Governing Relations Between the People of Taiwan Area and the Mainland Area”. A premise of the Act is that both sides of Taiwan Strait are “two regions under the same sovereignty”‘. It is hoped that the indirect reference on the politically sensitive sovereignty issue can at least prevent cross-Strait relations from deteriorating.

In the run-up to Tsai’s inauguration, mainland’s media barely mentioned her name. The day after Tsai’s swearing-in, mainland’s Xinhua news agency criticized her for “swapping the 1992 consensus with ‘a historic fact'”.

Yet mainland’s ostensible animosity does not mean there is no ground for prudent optimism. For a start, Tsai has demonstrated her pliability by refraining from further provoking the mainland. Her conciliatory gesture is in stark contrast to that of former Taiwan President Chen Shui-bian’s.

And Tsai’s track record tells the mainland and the United States that her behavior is more predictable than Chen Shui-bian’s. Since the current Sino-US tie is relatively stable and the two super powers are cooperating with each other on various fronts including North Korea and anti-terrorism, it does not look like the US will allow Taiwan issue to ruin its bigger strategic interests. Pressure from Washington will definitely play a decisive factor and Tsai is likely to listen to the U.S.

For mainland China, there are domestic issues to tackle like jump-starting the sluggish economy. Waging a war against Taiwan seems to be not China’s priority now.

Xi has already won praise when he met outgoing Taiwan President Ma Ying-jeou on November 7, 2015 in Singapore, marking the first encounter between the incumbent top leaders from across the strait after 1949. So even if his reunification dream cannot come true soon, he has laid the groundwork  for achieving it.

Fong Tak Ho is a long-time Hong Kong journalist who has worked for the Hong Kong Standard, the South China Morning Post, Ming Pao, Asia Times Online and other publications.

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