Will Taiwan Trap Itself Into ‘One China’ Again?

Taiwan’s commitment to resist China’s encroaching expansionism is under challenge — not only from China, but from within, thanks to its upcoming local elections. It is unlikely that the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) administration, led by President Tsai Ing-wen, will accept Beijing’s “One China” policy in the foreseeable future, given the strategic adjustments of many democracies toward China and polls in Taiwan consistently showing that there is little desire for “unification.” Still, the local elections in Taiwan this November pose an insidious threat to its future stance. More specifically, the current mayor of Taiwan’s capital of Taipei, Ko Wen-je, a popular political figure campaigning for re-election and an advocate for China’s core Taiwan policy doctrine that “two sides of the Taiwan Strait are one family,” may inject uncertainty into Taiwan’s resolve to counter Chinese aggression.

Much attention has been paid to Tsai’s refusal of the “1992 Consensus,” a disguised “One China” policy embraced by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and the Kuomintang (KMT), currently the main opposition party. There are likewise a wealth of reports about China’s intensifying campaign against Taiwan since the DPP resumed office in 2016, including poaching Taiwan’s diplomatic allies, coercing foreign companies to erase references to Taiwan, restricting Taiwan’s participation in multiple international organizations, and escalating military threats toward Taiwan. Yet relatively little has been said about Beijing’s exploitation of — as well as its impact on — those who desire to accommodate its assertiveness through adopting surrogate doctrines and cultivating new proxies in Taiwan.

History of China’s Containment of Taiwan From Within

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China has continually sought to penetrate Taiwan’s political system and marginalize administrations which refuse to recognize Beijing’s “One China” policy by aligning with pro-Beijing politicians and political forces. In 2005, during the first DPP administration, Lien Chan, the former vice president and former president of the KMT, visited then-Chinese president Hu Jintao in China, forming a party-to party platform for negotiations that excluded the then-DPP government. Lien and Hu concluded their meeting with a historical agreement — the “Five-Point Vision for Cross-Strait Peace” — aimed at pursuing a peace agreement as an political end of the cross-strait issue under the “One China” framework. After the KMT returned to power in 2008, Ma Ying-jeou’s administration extensively implemented those visions, signing all agreements and cooperation schemes under the so-called “1992 Consensus.”

Ma’s approach pushed Taiwan into an asymmetric reliance on China both economically and politically, offering China overarching leverage over Taiwan, benefiting a few cross-strait businesses while sacrificing the majority of domestic labor, and causing Taiwan’s constitutional democracy to deteriorate in pursuit of the passage of those accords. While obtaining certain space on the international stage, Taiwan’s presence was perceived as an “authorized autonomy” granted by China, rather than evidence of its independence. This path triggered a great backlash from civil society in 2014 and eventually led to the KMT’s historic defeat in both local elections in 2014 and general elections in 2016.

From “the 1992 Consensus” to “Both Sides of the Strait Are One Family”

Against this backdrop, Ko Wen-je won a landslide victory as an independent in the 2014 Taipei mayoral race. It could not, therefore, be more ironic that he would then endorse the concept of China and Taiwan being “one family” and “sharing a common destiny” soon after taking office, turning his success as a once-breakthrough politician against the KMT’s dominance of Taipei into a potential opening for Beijing’s infiltration.

Ko’s recognition of this terminology satisfies Beijing’s demand that cross-strait dialogues at all levels must take place under the “One China” framework. It has paved Ko’s way to attend the Taipei-Shanghai Forum since 2015 and ensures his ability to meet with high-ranking Chinese officials. While some might argue Ko’s overtures are not a direct concession to “One China” similar to that of the Ma administration, such claims are based on a misunderstanding of Beijing’s overarching notion of “One China.”

Emphasizing the “kinship” between Taiwan and China has always been an essential appeal of China’s strategy to contain Taiwan. The origin of this concept can be traced back to 1979 with the “Open Letter to Taiwan Compatriots” in which China addressed the “kinship” of people living on both sides. Former Chinese presidents Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao had extensively used this phrase. Xi Jinping himself, likewise, deployed the phrase both as vice president and later president of China when meeting with Taiwanese delegates and leaders between 2010 and 2018. In 2017, the 19th National Congress of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) officially enshrined this concept, making it a parallel doctrine to the “1992 Consensus” in its outline of future Taiwan policy.

It is clear that “two sides of the Strait are one family” is a pivotal pillar of both Xi’s and China’s Taiwan policy. If the so-called “1992 Consensus” embodies Beijing’s sovereign claim over Taiwan, then the “one family” doctrine fulfills China’s nationalistic claim in suggesting there is only one nation on either side of the Taiwan Strait. In this era of frozen relations between Tsai and Beijing, China’s welcome of Ko’s overture indicates that the concept of “two sides of the Strait” being “one family” has been given a more critical status than it was thought to possess, arguably as the latest formula for Beijing’s co-opting of Taiwan’s rising political forces.

Given that local elections in Taiwan serve as midterm exams for the incumbent central government, the importance of the role of the capital mayor in cross-strait relations, as well as Ko’s high popularity — which has led to him being frequently touted as a potential presidential candidate — Beijing’s attempt to leverage this election should be concerned.

For instance, Chinese state-run media CCTV recently featured positive coverage of Ko — a tactic similar to its previous propaganda for the KMT — which arguably implies Beijing’s public endorsement of him. Indeed, Ko may be China’s rare chance to establish a political beachhead in Taiwan by way of a new political proxy, as the KMT is highly unlikely to win back power in the short-term. Ko is a strong potential challenger for Taiwan’s presidency in the coming decade, and his rise may well result from his populist leadership style and nonpartisan nature, which allows him to tap into growing dissatisfaction with both major parties — the DPP and the KMT,

It is unlikely that the majority of voters will accept Ko’s stance on China, but there is a clear tendency to downplay Ko’s cross-strait stance among his supporters due to his popularity. Even members from the pro-independence camp, such as New Power Party legislator Freddy Lim, misinterpret the weight of Ko’s “one family” phrasing in cross-strait relations.

Ko has had chances to readjust his stance on China, but has chosen to defend his acceptance of the “one family” concept as a pragmatic approach that helps Taiwan buy time. Despite such rhetoric mirroring the KMT’s in the past, Ko’s accommodation of Beijing has not assuaged its assertiveness toward Taiwan in any way. Rather, it has given Beijing more leverage to infiltrate Taiwan’s domestic political debates and signaled a reincarnation of the KMT’s past approach. In addition, the side effect of such overtures may further confuse the international community’s perception of Taiwan, in which misinterpretations perceiving Taiwan-China struggles as an “intra-family dispute” are common.

Bulwark of Democracy vs. Orbit of Authoritarianism

To date, Xi’s “Two Centenary Goals” for the “Chinese Great Rejuvenation” have explicitly exposed China’s intention to challenge the geopolitical order, with taking Taiwan as an integral part of that grand scheme. Cross-strait relations, therefore, must be understood in the context of international geopolitics and the global order rather than merely a cross-strait affair.

As a vibrant democracy standing at the forefront of this encroaching revisionism, Taiwan’s determination to counter such expansion matters. Since many countries are now adjusting their strategies toward China’s assertiveness, including a growing concern over China’s interference in other nations’ democratic institutions, Taiwan should continue to make overtures to potential democratic allies around the world to counter China’s attempts at aggression, instead of placing itself again into an authoritarian superpower’s orbit. Accommodating China might be perceived as a way to bolster short-term security, but the price for Taiwan’s democracy and long-term capability to defend itself from authoritarian aggression will be overwhelming.

As a rising political force, Ko’s tendency to embrace “One China” has introduced a complicating factor into Taiwan’s future trajectory. Yet Taiwanese people might still be able to push back against such inclinations through a comprehensive examination of their political leaders’ stances. Neglecting the fact that “two sides of the Strait are one family” serves as a core concept of Beijing which traps Taiwan in an endless cycle of independence-unification debates will not help us to transcend domestic divergence.

Importantly, after experiencing Ma’s eight years of pro-China policy, Tsai’s turn from China, and the possibility of Ko’s rise, whether Taiwan’s commitment to counter China’s expansionism should continue to be bound by the personal will of political leaders in the future is indeed questionable. Further institutionalizing and consolidating Taiwan’s de facto independence are considerably more essential than restricting itself under the ambiguous discourse of “maintaining the status quo.” As China’s mounting assertiveness poses the unprecedented challenge to the democratic world, it would be in the international community’s best interests to support a free and independent future for Taiwan.

Lin Fei-fan was a student leader of the 2014 Sunflower Movement in Taiwan, graduated with an MA in Political Science from National Taiwan University in 2017, and is currently undertaking an MSc in Comparative Politics at the London School of Economics.