Barthélémy Courmont (PhD) is Professor at the Catholic University in Lille (France), Research-fellow at the Paris-based Institute of International and Strategic Relations (IRIS), Associate Director, security and defense, at the Raoul-Dandurand Chair (UQAM, Montreal, Canada) and Chief-editor of the French quarterly Monde chinois, nouvelle Asie.
The complex relationship between the People’s Republic of China and the Republic of China (Taiwan), also known as Cross-Strait relations, has significantly improved over the past few years, beginning in 2008 with the first election of Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou and the implementation of various agreements and bilateral talks on economic and trade issues. After a series of historical and highly symbolic initiatives related to direct flights and cultural exchanges, the most spectacular decision in Cross-Strait relations occurred in 2010, with the signing of the Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement (ECFA), which aimed to boost economic growth on both sides and formalized economic interdependence.
The possibility of a comprehensive dialogue that includes peace talks, which until recently was considered impossible, now seems a serious option for the first time since 1949 — despite the sensitivity of the issue. Ma announced, prior to his re-election early 2012, that such discussions could take place within ten years provided relations continue to improve. However, opposition to upgrading Cross-Strait relations remains high in Taiwan. This is mostly due to Taiwanese reluctance in dealing with the authoritarian Chinese regime as well as the major gap between both sides, as a result of completely different development, economic, social and political models. The so-called “Sunflower Student Movement” that emerged in the spring of 2014, highlighted and symbolized by the peaceful occupation of the Legislative Yuan (Parliament) and calls for more transparency in Ma’s Cross-Strait policy, demonstrates both Taiwan’s attachment to democracy and the degree of scrutiny facing Cross-Strait relations within the country.
Despite his second-term re-election, Ma’s low level of public support can be interpreted as a clear message against heightened dialogue with Beijing. The birth of the Sunflower Movement, along with the historic defeat of the Kuomintang in December 2014 municipal elections, illustrates the gap between a government keen to accelerate Cross-Strait integration and a population concerned with long-term consequences over Taiwan’s sovereignty. Given that military confrontation is unlikely, economic interdependence through a more comprehensive Cross-Strait dialogue including strategic and political talks may be considered a sensible option — and is, at least potentially, acceptable for both sides. Whether or not a decision is made in the next few years to strengthen Cross-Strait relations, this issue will continue to have significant influence on Taiwan’s political life; indeed, the country’s two main political parties have yet to agree on the best approach for relations with Beijing and define the hypothetical red line that no Taiwanese leader should cross.
Praised by some and criticized by others, the paradigm introduced in 2008 is based on a tacit agreement that neither independence nor reunification is considered a relevant option in the short-term. In other words, Beijing preserves a status-quo that guarantees de facto independent status for Taiwan, while Taipei accepts to not cross the Rubicon by officially declaring its independence. Although there are several obstacles to establishing a comprehensive Cross-Strait dialogue, notably on security issues, the seemingly intractable relationship can be reshaped and give rise to a more cooperative partnership. The two sides can engage in a dialogue that clearly identifies and excludes sensitive issues such as sovereignty. But this dialogue does not provide definite answers to questions related to the future status of Taiwan or the permanence of the Chinese threat. While the current relationship, therefore, appears to be in transition, no agenda seems to be satisfactory to both sides.
The process of normalizing Cross-Strait relations does not include, at least in the short-term, any dialogue on unification, and ultimately raises questions on security and whether or not both sides can identify converging goals, which seems unlikely at the moment. Cross-straits dialogue will be at the centre of the 2016 presidential election, likely to oppose the Kuomintang new Chairman Eric Chu, mayor of New Taipei City, and Tsai Ing-wen, Chairman of the DPP and defeated candidate in 2012. Tsai might become Taiwan’s first woman president, and her position on Cross-Strait relations oscillates between increased dialogue — symbolized by the establishment of relations between the Chinese Communist Party and the DPP — and skepticism over upgrading the relationship. In that sense, her posture seems to mirror public opinion. In other words, if elected she is not likely to change the nature of the Cross-Strait dialogue, but will most certainly clarify where the red line stands.
So far, without a peace agreement or an agenda that includes security issues, the intensification of exchanges has exclusively focused on confidence building, based on closer economic ties, and a tacit agreement that the security situation remains unchanged. However, as American experts Philipp C. Saunders and Scott L. Kastner stated in 2009, “although a peace agreement would not end the risk of war across the Taiwan Strait, such an agreement would likely be more effective than mutual restraint. An explicit peace agreement could produce additional benefits that help to sustain cooperation, include mechanisms that make it harder for either side to walk away, and be more durable over time and across changes in political leadership.” Although it may indeed produce additional benefits, such a prospect remains unlikely (if not impossible), considering the reluctance of the Taiwanese population to move further in the direction of an explicit peace agreement. Nevertheless, although it does not eliminate the risk of conflict, the establishment of economic ties reduces uncertainty between Beijing and Taipei. It is therefore a significant development in Cross-Strait relations and may have an impact on both sides that neither seems to have fully acknowledged. And considering the difficulty for Taiwanese political leaders to obtain strong support for further moves, economic and cultural ties appear to be the least risky of all options.
On the one hand, the absence of a clear political and security agenda serves Beijing’s interests in that Taiwan’s independence goal seems adjourned, if not abandoned — as long as the economy remains the priority for Taiwanese authorities. On the other hand, several experts argue that expanding economic and social ties across the Strait will only enhance Taiwan’s soft power and enable Taiwanese non-governmental organizations, mass media, academic and religious organizations to increase their influence in China. This idea is partly based on the observation that “the interest and curiosity in Taiwan’s democratic process was so overwhelming among mainland Chinese netizens that Beijing’s cyber-policing authority had to drop the idea of erecting a firewall against Taiwan-based news media during the 2012 presidential campaign”. This may not suggest significant political changes in China, but it symbolizes a new approach in Cross-Strait relations that goes beyond the establishment of economic ties between the two entities.
Lastly, by posing the trade and economic components of a bilateral relation as the first step toward security dialogue, the Cross-Strait relationship’s evolution and the current paradigm may represent a long-term positive example for change in East Asian security and diplomacy. Its success will not only be based on the trajectory of the Taiwan-China dialogue and the implementation of confidence-building measures, but also on its ability to reshape state-to-state relations among long-time rivals and enemies in East Asia.