by Brian Hioe
Photo Credit: Kremlin/Public Domain
Tragedy and Farce
PERHAPS WE MIGHT begin with a humorous parable. Several months ago in the United States, in an apparent attempt to undermine negotiations regarding a nuclear deal with Iran, 47 Republican Senators of the United States Senate wrote an letter to Iranian leaders citing their disagreement with the pending nuclear deal. Of course, apart from that Iran’s leaders found this laughable, Iranian foreign minister Javad Zarif in particular seeming to take this as an insult to his intelligence as an expert on American foreign affairs, the actions of Republicans provoked irate reactions where their actions were aimed at undercutting the Obama administration and had done so. Not only had the letter strengthened the hand of Iran in negotiations but, as some commented the actions of these 47 Republicans could actually be construed as treason.
This specific matter aside, as a general matter of principle, is it, after all, not national treason when one party unilaterally takes actions into its own hand regarding foreign policy for the nation as a whole, apart from any due deliberation of law? But, of course, when something of the like nature happens in Taiwan, nobody alleges treason. On the contrary, flying in the face of all those who claim that Taiwan is a democracy, with stable legal institutions, unilateral one party decision-making often seems to be something like the true, unwritten law of government here. This is Taiwan we are talking about, after all. And the betrayal of the Taiwanese people by the KMT is hardly a new thing.
The talk of all Taiwan of late has, of course, been the meeting between KMT Chairman Eric Chu and Chinese President Xi Jinping on Monday. The meeting was from beginning to end an object of much speculation, drama, and hype, having been preceded for months by an elaborate amount of back and forth pageantry between the KMT and CCP about whether to not the meeting would take place. After the meeting finally happened, an enormous amount of commentary was produced speculating as to its broader implications.
But, lo and behold, for all the excitement, the meeting was largely a non-event! Little would seem to have been accomplished in the meeting between KMT and CCP besides the reaffirmation of what everyone knew beforehand, and the trotting out of the usual old ambiguous turns of phrase concerning the amorphous relation of Taiwan and China. In fact, it would seem that was largely the significance of the event—that it was a non-event.
The Event of the Non-Event
WHAT HAPPENED between Chu and Xi at their meeting? What did we learn, from what was said between Chu and Xi? The KMT would like to develop stronger economic ties between Taiwan and China through Taiwanese admittance to China’s Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, although it was somewhat more surprising that Chu stated that Taiwan was also interested in admittance to China’s “One Belt, One Road” economic initiative. And while it may have been China which was more ambiguous on its positions, Chu arriving in the position of the supplicant and China ultimately holding more cards in its hands, both sides also reconfirmed their commitment to develop further ties, and a continued commitment the notion of “One China,” whatever that means exactly.
None of this is new information. We already largely knew the KMT’s stances from the last year in consideration of its obstinacy to push through trade policies aimed at bringing Taiwan closer to China, even after the severe public relations blowback which followed the Sunflower Movement and the KMT’s beating in nine-in-one elections. And we all are all too aware of the KMT”s commitment to the notion of “One China” and of China’s continued territorial claims to Taiwan.
But it may be that the importance of the Chu-Xi meeting probably lay outside of the meeting. The meeting itself, after all, was one in which nothing happened. Apart from the fact that we might call attention to the fact that the state of Taiwan is one in which one party can take up foreign relations for the nation as a whole, even in such cases when negotiations are with Taiwan’s existential threat, China, if genuine negotiations were to happen between the KMT and CCP, they would not happen on such an open basis.
Indeed, even during the era of the KMT’s utterly irreconcilable antagonism to the CCP during the period of Chiang Kai-Shek’s dictatorial rule over Taiwan, negotiations were still carried out between Chiang and the CCP under the table. At that point in time, negotiations were carried out between Chiang and Zhou Enlai through an intermediary in Hong Kong, Chiang having a history of friendly relations with Zhou dating back to the Sino-Japanese War as fellow natives of Zhejiang. To be sure, that was decades ago. But it should surprise nobody that informal ties between the KMT and CCP which allow for negotiation under the table probably still do exist in the present. And it would be foolish of the KMT and CCP to broadcast the results of such a negotiation to the world through as public a spectacle as the Chu-Xi meeting.
The real significance of the meeting, however, lay in the Chu-Xi meeting as performance. The meeting’s importance lay far less in what it accomplished or what was discussed, but in the face it presented to the world as an act of elaborate diplomatic pageantry and the import of the posturing that Chu and Xi were able to do through their meeting. Xi, for example, was able to in some vague way reaffirm his claim that he will achieve the unification of Taiwan and China, and to indirectly gesture as to that China’s ambitions on Taiwan have not gone away. Obviously, it is a larger question as to whether Xi has any possibility of accomplishing his ambitious goals.
Where we may speculate as to whether Chu is gearing up for a presidential run despite having vowed that he would not run, attempting to beef up his foreign policy credentials through this meeting, we can broadly suggest that the KMT is in some way attempting to hold up its credentials as the only Taiwanese political party able to stand its ground against the CCP. Where the perceived ability or non-ability of a Taiwanese president to stand up to China, or to avoid reckless provocations with China, is often the deciding factor for swing voters in Taiwan as to which party to vote for, it seems this is what the KMT is banking on—never mind that this may backfire in face of the anti-KMT sentiment which erupted in the last year because of its attempts to facilitate closer ties between Taiwan and China.
And here we might turn our attention to some of the commentary which was produced in the aftermath of the debate where it seems the larger import of the meeting may be in how the meeting was perceived.
The Ecology of Mediocre Journalism
TO GAUGE THE effects of the Chu-Xi meeting in the international sphere, outside of what the meeting itself produced, we might turn our attention to some of the journalism was produced in its aftermath. The first paragraph of Austin Ramzy’s piece on the Chu-Xi meeting reads as follows:
“The head of Taiwan’s governing party told President Xi Jinping of China during a meeting in Beijing on Monday that he hoped the two sides could forge greater cooperation on issues of regional interest, including economic integration and disaster response.”
Indeed, there is absolutely nothing objectionable or factually wrong about this statement. But what would a reader who knows little to anything about Taiwan take away from this? Chu is indeed the “head of Taiwan’s governing party,” which is to say the KMT, which is currently in power and is quite correctly “Taiwan’s governing party”. Yet for the ill-informed, the takeaway might be that pro-unification sentiment is still strong in the population of Taiwan should it be that the “head of Taiwan’s governing party” can share with Xi Jinping an “understanding between representatives of both sides of the Taiwan Strait that there is only one China.“
Of course, Ramzy’s full statement reads, “Mr. Xi and Mr. Chu emphasized […] an understanding between representatives of both sides of the Taiwan Strait that there is only one China, but that both sides have their own understanding of what that is.” Ramzy has his facts correct where both KMT and CCP agree about a vision of “One China” and vow the eventual reunification of “One China”, but do not agree about its definition.
But “One China” does not mean, as no less than AP reported in an article which they then later retracted, that the KMT vows the eventual unification of Taiwan with China through Taiwan’s becoming part of China. Certainly, such reports only serve to heighten perceptions that Taiwan wishes to become a part of China. Yet if no less than the Associated Press had its facts wrong, what of the ecolomy of mediocre journalism which generally does not have its facts so clear? The examples of second-rate publications which got their facts wrong on this were more than can be counted.
As we see here, concern one’s self with international journalism about Taiwan long enough—or East Asia more generally—and one realizes generally how mediocre it is. Journalists are out to sell their articles on the marketplace in order to make a living, after all, and publications seek articles which can drive up readership engagement and advertising revenue. When it comes to East Asia, one often finds, so long as one can sell a story based on some preexisting narrative which already circulates in the public sphere, it can often pass as fact without further examination—and the more sensational the better. Where high linguistic barriers impede detailed fact-checking but East Asian countries have a large economic, cultural, and political import in the world, flawed journalism cannot but proliferate even in the cases of large, respectable news agencies.
The standards for journalism can be low when even just writing about something as simple as everyday life in Asia can be newsworthy in other parts of the world. This has led such grotesque misperceptions in the international sphere of just the bare facts of everyday life. We can see this, for example, apparently large tracts of the world are unaware of the fact that the Great Firewall of China is easily and widespread breached through the usage of VPN and this fact is rarely mentioned in journalism, recent claims about crackdowns on VPN even in themselves being somewhat sensationalist in nature. Here we find that the narrative of China as totalitarian oppressor can be an easy sell for an article.
Where Taiwan is an especially obscure corner of Asia, almost anything can pass as fact without being called out as falsehood. In fact, the very obscurity of Taiwan renders it vulnerable to being used as an interesting, fresh angle pertaining to some other, larger issue, never mind whether factually true claims are being made about Taiwan or not. Indeed, no more was this the case than in regards to where last year’s Sunflower Movement was overshadowed by Hong Kong’s Umbrella Movement and as a significant an event as the Sunflower Movement became an interesting angle to contribute to larger discussions of the Umbrella Movement. We can see this claims as to the influence of the Sunflower Movement’s use of social media upon the Umbrella Movement’s use of social media which were factually wrong, or that Ko Wen-Je’s victory in nine-in-one elections in December somehow became attributed to the Umbrella Movement.
Where Taiwan is overshadowed culturally, politically, and economically by its larger neighbor of China, journalists writing about Taiwan very often know little about Taiwan, but much more about China. This problem renders journalists especially vulnerable to be influence by Chinese views upon cross-strait relations. This set of circumstances, however, is more broadly a reflection of Taiwan’s state of obscurity in the world. Indeed, this is a problem, too, within the Taiwan Studies where many academics who claim to study or have some specialty in Taiwan are actually China experts with a subfield expertise in Taiwan. So, who can blame these so-called experts when they are unable to parse out China’s claims from what is reality? Never mind that this predisposes many so-called Taiwan experts in journalism or academia to viewing Taiwan as an unnecessary aggressor which should avoid troubling its larger neighbor of China.
As compounded by the problem of mediocre journalism, why exactly were foreign journalists so easily misled by the specter of “One China?” Namely, the occasional brandishing of “One China” is precisely a policy aimed at a deliberate befuddlement of China and Taiwan. But the explosion of commentary which followed after the Chu-Xi Debate was also highly illustrative where Taiwan’s ambiguous position in the world relative to America and China is concerned.
Consensus? What Consensus?
WE MIGHT MORE generally point to Taiwan’s obscure, ambiguous position in the world from the beginning as also contributing to why so many journalists had their facts wrong on this issue, that is to say, a means by which policies of deliberately muddling the issue have been very successful. Indeed, from the beginning, the “Republic of China” was founded upon the fiction of the KMT’s claim that Taiwan was China, a claim which increasingly became unreality as the years and decades went on and it became clear that the KMT was not going to be forcibly retaking mainland China, continued claims to the contrary aside.
It is from this that the specter of “One China” emerges. What does it mean, after all, to borrow Ramzy’s phrasing of the issue once again, “that there is only one China, but that both sides have their own understanding of what that is” and that this is what the so-called “1992 Consensus” is? Where the 1992 Consensus is held up in some fashion by both CCP leaders and KMT leaders as a shared point of reference about cross-strait relations, the CCP never agreed to it to begin with but claims that this is the framework the KMT agreed to, insisting rather only on the point about “One China.” On the contrary, as the CCP has it, it is the KMT which views Taiwan and China as “one China, multiple interpretations,” or something of that sort.
But KMT Legislator Su Chi would later claim in 2007 he made up the phrase “1992 Consensus” in order to maintain peace during the period of KMT transition to DPP power after 2000 elections, some seven years after the fact. Former Taiwanese president Lee Teng-Hui, under whose administration the supposed “1992 Consensus” would have theoretically been negotiated, also denies its existence; it was his denying of its existence that prompted Su Chi’s admission. So while Ma Ying-Jeou is fond of repeating the phrase 1992 Consensus in the present, like some sort of Buddhist mantra, does it even exist?
United Daily News headline from 2012 hailing the victory of Ma Ying-Jeou as the victory of the 1992 Consensus. Photo credit: OPEN 開放網
Besides, more to the point, what does it even mean to agree on the point of “one China, many interpretations”? Does it not just mean what we already knew, that both the KMT and CCP do not accept or would not accept de jure Taiwanese independence, but are not in positions to publicly facilitate the unification of Taiwan and China through one becoming subordinate to the other? What does that even mean and what would it mean to agree on it?
In that sense, the “1992 Consensus” seems to be just a way of making Taiwan’s ambiguous, befuddled status in the world seem just the slightest bit less befuddled, but without actually resolving the issue. A polite way of saying nothing at all, but insisting that something has been said. These types of fictional “consensuses”, or “agreements” proliferate in global diplomacy; the Taiwan Relations Act between Taiwan and the US would be another example, in which the US politely takes a non-position on the matter of Taiwan, China, and American relations while claiming to have significant stake in and to be invested in the matter.
Unfortunately, miring diplomatic matters in ambiguity is usually quite an effective tactic. There remain those convinced that the US has a treat obligation to defend Taiwan in the case of Chinese invasion as a product of the ambiguities the Taiwan Relations Act is meant to present, never mind that that is not the case. And whatever the fictive origins of the “1992 Consensus”, it certainly has been very good at muddling the issue and effacing the unresolved issue of Taiwan’s de facto independence and the threat to its independence it faces from China.
In Conclusion: Repetitions of an Old Debate
IN CONCLUSION, we might note that the hullaballoo which has followed the Chu-Xi meeting largely led to a rehashing of old debates. We see, for example, where Hugh White would offer in a recent article in The National Interest raising no less that the threat of nuclear war of all things between the US and China was too high and that Taiwan would have to be the necessary sacrifice for the maintenance of regional peace. J. Michael Cole would respond in a series of articles, asserting that the loss of Taiwan would ultimately be detrimental to American interests where it would lead to increased Chinese aggressiveness.
On the contrary, Cole would respond quite diplomatically stating that as White’s position has “modicum of traction in some circles, and as such, it is essential that it be properly countered.” Where I have less need to be diplomatic, we might instead suggest White’s antiquarian, if not unhinged, but also highly dangerous view of geopolitical reality. White would seem to think that we still live in a world of policies mutually assured destruction, on the edge of nuclear midnight, as in the height of the Cold War. Never mind whether we still live in such a world, or even that there certainly are lingering remnants in international politics we can justifiably point to as dating from the Cold War, but White’s position would seem to represent the extreme end of the position that China’s rise is too dangerous for America and that Taiwan needs to be a necessary sacrifice.
This would be the form of “realism” which sees things in their most brutal terms as what is truly “realistic” and anything which aims at a more nuanced viewed of geopolitical power as “unrealistic.” But White’s position also represents the alarming view in international relations circles which sees China in identical terms to how the Soviet Union was seen during the Cold War and sees the US as needing to take up similarly aggressive policies against China. White seems to be living in a world of twenty, thirty, or forty years ago—or his militarist fantasies of such a world, anyway. Actually, it may be White himself who is the holdover from the Cold War in his worldview. Where he is an extreme example of the view that Taiwan need be sacrificed for the greater good, this position is hardly a unique one in the world of international affairs as it is argued for by a number of individuals.
Cole would cite that policies of appeasement, as in the case of the Munich Agreement in 1938, do not check the aggression of rising powers, but rather can lead to their becoming more aggressive, as in fact I have also argued in the past. But where Cole’s argument against White’s is founded upon the notion that Taiwan is too valuable a part of the American strategic umbrella to be sacrificed, it is still founded on the notion that Taiwan’s salvation lie in appealing to American interests. Perhaps so, if one’s framework of “realist” political action is that Taiwan must necessarily lean towards China or lean towards America.
Yet we need to point to where American interests have also thrown Taiwan under the bus in the past. That this is precisely what White argues for and Cole seeks to refute, that White’s position proves how this logic continually rears its head and can do so in the future. White’s position enjoys more than just a “modicum” of traction, I would say, as evidenced in that Cole himself felt a need to refute White’s position and carry out a high-stakes, high-level public debate with White. And while I think Cole is largely successful in refuting White, it is actually that White’s views and the possibility of their gaining widespread traction is precisely what undercuts Cole’s or any other attempts to predicate Taiwan’s salvation solely on the basis of appealing to American interests.
What I myself would ask in the revival of such debates is:
- Does Taiwan’s salvation really only lay in appealing to America’s strategic interests?
- Can Taiwan legitimately make demands of America where America was the abetter of so many years of KMT dictatorship—up until the present?
- And lastly—however an uphill struggle it may be, however “unrealistic” it may seem depending on what we set as our parameter of political “realism”—can Taiwan seek its own political position of independence relative to both China and America, when it can count on neither?
These are the questions I see as in need of answer in the present.
It may be that where the Chu-Xi meeting has offered nothing truly new in regards to Taiwan or China but only the repetition of old slogans and the renewing of old political vows by the CCP and KMT. If the same old debates are being had over and over again as a result, in response to this whole sordid affair, it may be that the most valuable thing we can do in the present is to meditate deeply upon the questions about Taiwan’s status in the world which have gone unresolved from the past to the present. Perhaps only then might we find answers. Perhaps only then might we find a way out for Taiwan.