By: Jens Kastner

Taiwan’s Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) government, strangled by economic restrictions by Beijing, has unexpectedly begun endorsing the idea of inking a peace agreement with its archfoe, a dramatic turnaround in the party’s China policy. 

Ever since the outbreak of the Chinese Civil War in 1927, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and the Republic of China (ROC) founded by the KMT have technically remained in a state of hostility. The People’s Liberation Army isn’t showing signs of slowing its arms buildup vis-à-vis the island, and even the most basic mutual military confidence-building measures, such as a military hotline and codes of conduct for activities of fighter jets and naval fleets, are still lacking.

Any actual agreement may be problematical. The government wants China to recognize the ROC, the onetime national government founded by Sun Yat-sen.

 “Of course we do want a peace agreement if it is based on a strong domestic consensus,” Taiwan’s Mainland Affairs Council spokesman Chiu Chui-cheng told a Taipei press conference on Nov 3.

He added that such a pact should conform with Taiwan’s democratic system and be beneficial to the overall international situation, and that China should recognize the ROC.

The DPP government’s new willingness to negotiate reflects other problems for the United States and its allies in Asia. China under Xi Jinping has been extraordinarily aggressive in claiming hegemony over the entire South China Sea and has had considerable success in splitting the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, with an increasing number falling for economic blandishments from the mainland.

Beijing has been similarly aggressive in the East China Sea, seeking to drive a wedge between Japan and its allies in the region. In the event of an agreement, which seems unlikely, the US would lose a de facto ally in Taiwan.

China, which comprises Taiwan’s largest export market, inbound tourism source and investment destination, has been squeezing Taiwan since the DPP took power in May following an electoral landslide that ousted the long-ruling Kuomintang (KMT), whose policy toward the mainland has long favored accommodation.

Beijing unilaterally cut official ties with Taipei and apparently orchestrated a drastic drop in Chinese tourist trips to the island to force the DPP government to follow in the KMT’s footsteps by recognizing that Taiwan is part of China under the “1992 consensus,” a version of the One China principle that cryptically allows the two sides to “agree to disagree.”

Although China’s moves have started to bite and the president, Tsai Ing-wen, has seen her public approval ratings plummeting, the DPP government cannot give in because it was elected precisely for not toeing the KMT’s China-friendly line. According to the new calculus, by proposing a peace agreement, they would get Beijing talking without them recognizing the 1992 Consensus.

“The timing [of MAC offering talks on a peace agreement] is partly affected by Hung’s visit to Beijing, and the Tsai Administration cannot afford to be seen as unwilling to work with Beijing,” said Steve Tsang, director of the University of Nottingham’s China Policy Institute.

“But this offer to talk without precondition will go nowhere as Beijing will only talk with preconditions,” he added.

Talk of a formal peace pact is a surprise. In 2011 the DPP, then in the opposition, blasted former President Ma Ying-jeou for proposing the same thing. The KMT’s current leader, Chairwoman Hung Hsiu-chu, got an earful from the DPP as recently as early November when she personally pitched the idea while meeting China’s President Xi Jinping in Beijing.

When former President Ma in 2011 dropped a bombshell by making mention of a possible peace agreement with China, the DPP complained that he was about to sign something that cements Taiwan’s subordinate status because China would never allow the relationship under the pact to be defined as state-to-state.

The DPP reminded Ma that China once signed a peace agreement with Tibet only to stage an invasion afterwards. Others charged that a peace agreement with China would undermine Taiwan’s strategic posture. That notion was fueled by a diplomatic cable released by WikiLeaks, in which US officials calculated that a deal could be used by pro-China US politicians to make a strong case for an end of US arms sales to Taiwan.

When former US president Bill Clinton visited Taiwan in 2005 in his private capacity, he said that signing a peace agreement with China would be inadvisable because Taiwan would not trust China to abide by the agreement in the first place. Clinton went so far as to warn that when the agreement expired before unification is achieved, it could possibly be fielded as an excuse for China to attack Taiwan.

John F. Copper, the Stanley J. Buckman Distinguished Professor of International Studies emeritus at Rhodes College in Memphis, Tennessee, and author of many books on Taiwan politics, for his part, argued that a cross-Strait peace agreement would require the participation of the US for it to be meaningful and that does not at all appear likely in the foreseeable future.

“One should recall that at the Republican convention in July in Cleveland there was put in the party’s platform support for President Reagan’s 1982 ‘Six Assurances’ to Taiwan,” Copper said. “One of these was to not play a mediation role between Taipei and Beijing. Helping promote a peace agreement would be that it would seem.”

Nevertheless, according to Tsang, the unexpected turnaround is a positive step for the Tsai Administration to make it clear it is willing to talk to Beijing and articulate an understanding of Beijing’s bottom line.

“But nothing will happen until Beijing is willing to respect the Taiwan government’s bottom line, too,” he said. “Or at least until Beijing acts on the spirit of the ‘1992 consensus’ which is that both acknowledge the other’s bottom line and not cross it.”