An aerial view China's aircraft carrier, Liaoning, followed by destroyers and frigates during an exercise this month. Photo: AFP
China's aircraft carrier Liaoning, followed by destroyers and frigates during an exercise. Photo: AFP

In the wake of Friday’s historic inter-Korean summit, the inevitable happened, with Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen making a purely symbolic gesture to Beijing. Her “olive branch” moment came when she announced she would be willing to meet Chinese President Xi Jinping “for peace and stability.”

Tsai’s move was symbolic because she also stated that such a meeting would have to be “without any political precondition and on an equal footing.”

This makes the meeting impossible. It was also laden with irony given that it is the refusal of her Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) to bow to a political precondition set by Beijing that has led to a souring of relations in the Taiwan Strait and the usual “heightened tensions.”

The root of the problematic political precondition is one word, and the patent absurdity of how the problem came about becomes clear when you unpack its brief history. 

The 1992 Consensus

The only time the leaders of Taiwan and China have met since the end of China’s Civil War in 1950 – Mao Zedong and Chiang Kai-shek last met in Chongqing in 1945 after the defeat of the Japanese – was in Singapore in November 2016.

The meeting was made possible by former Taiwan president Ma Ying-jeou’s political position on the question of one China. Specifically, Ma adhered to the so-called 1992 Consensus, which its supporters maintain provides wiggle room for both sides to agree that there is only one China but to disagree on what that is.

For the People’s Republic of China (PRC), acknowledgment of the so-called consensus should be a prelude to negotiations leading to unification. Unfortunately, and creating an irresolvable stalemate, neither side in 1992 appears to have used the word “consensus.” Taiwan’s ruling DPP argue there never was one, and some of those involved in the negotiations agree.

“Consensus denialists,” to coin a term, broadly argue that the talks of 1992 were never more than a tacit verbal “agreement” to disagree, and reported events appear to support that. 

“Consensus denialists,” to coin a term, broadly argue that the talks of 1992 were never more than a tacit verbal “agreement” to disagree, and reported events appear to support that. 

Under then President Lee Teng-hui, Taiwan’s Strait Exchange Foundation (SEF) and China’s Association for Relations Across the Taiwan Strait (ARATS) met in Hong Kong.

Several weeks after the meeting, apparently, in order to break an impasse in negotiations, ARATS agreed to an SEF proposal that both sides could have their own verbal definitions of what constitutes one China, a breakthrough usually summed up as “one China, respective definitions.”

But the water is muddied by the fact that Lee has publicly called the idea that a consensus was reached a fabrication, and in 2006 Nationalist Party Legislator Su Chi admitted he made the term up eight years after the negotiations between SEF and ARATS took place. 

Su, who was head of Taiwan’s Mainland Affairs Council (MAC) at the time of the talks, said he invented the term “1992 Consensus” ahead of the DPP coming to power in 2000 because it “sounded better” than “one China, respective definitions.”   

In a rare case of a US representative discussing the issue, American Institute in Taiwan Chairman Raymond Burghardt made news in Taiwan in 2016 by saying that SEF chairman Koo Chen-foo used the term “1992 Understanding,” and not consensus. Koo, now deceased, even denied that a consensus was reached.

Holding Taiwan hostage

The fact that this is clearly a mess has not stopped Beijing from running with the term consensus and holding Taiwan hostage to it, as if to say: “We have to pretend to have agreed on something once in order to be able to talk again about anything else.”

During the 2015 meeting between Ma and Xi in Singapore, and in a pointed nod in the direction of the DPP, Xi said: “No matter which party or organization, and no matter what they stood for in the past, as long as the 1992 Consensus and its core values are acknowledged, we stand ready to have contact.”  

 It is difficult to say what the core values of a consensus that essentially amounts to “we disagree” might be, but Xi in effect ruled out direct negotiations with Tsai and the DPP nearly two years ago, and Tsai has reciprocated in kind in the wake of the inter-Korean Summit.  

Meanwhile, if China’s Xi ends up being touted as a peacemaker on the Korean Peninsula – and already some are speculating on a shared Nobel Peace Prize with Donald Trump and South Korean President Moon Jae-in – it should be seen against the backdrop of an absurd impasse in the Taiwan Strait.

Moreover, it should be seen in the context of live-fire military war games there. and of an ever-assertive China that refuses to budge – even on one hijacked word that a Taiwan legislator made up.

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