Economic integration with China has not been the sole motivation behind Ma’s approach to cross-strait relations. It has not been the endgame, but rather – a means to an end which can be described as an attempt to overcome the limitations imposed on Taiwan by the One China Policy.
There’s a common misconception, prevalent in the debate over the future of cross-strait relations. According to that view, rapprochement across the Taiwan Strait, initiated by the administration of President Ma Ying-jeou, is susceptible to change, as it solely depends on who’s in charge in Taiwan – the China-friendly KMT or the traditionally China-wary DPP. Beijing, being a one-party state, represents stability and predictability. That assumption, combined with China’s impressive economic development and its unprecedented rise as a geopolitical player, earned Beijing’s style of governance international acclaim. Even Western scholars have embraced the hybrid based on political authoritarianism and economic liberalism, and have praised it for its efficiency. Unlike in Western-style democracies, China’s political elites are not susceptible to the voters’ fads. Therefore, the CCP administration can focus on significant long-term reforms, without facing the risk of being sacked by the electorate, which is often unable to look beyond its short-term interests. To put it shortly: China is predictable, because its strategic goals are not hampered by electoral cycles. Unfortunately, this rule of thumb does not seem to apply to Beijing’s cross-strait policy.
The Sino-Taiwanese rapprochement inaugurated by the administration of President Ma Ying-jeou ended the long period of cross-strait tensions that outlived the Cold War. His policy has been praised internationally and dubbed pragmatic and responsible by both the United States and the European Union. Even the Presidential frontrunner Tsai Ying-wen, has been rather reserved and has mostly refrained from criticism in this area. Some of her policy statements even suggest she would wish to uphold the status quo across the strait and follow the course of Ma, if elected president. However, the recent cross-strait tensions indicate that Beijing is simply running out of patience and it’s not interested in making new friends on the island it perceives as a renegade province.
Therefore, following Ma’s footsteps by whoever’s going to be in charge after the January 2016 elections, may not satisfy Beijing anymore. A closer look at the course of events, related to Taiwan’s international offensive under Ma, suggests that the honeymoon ended when Xi Jinping’s replaced Hu Jintao in March 2013. Until that time, Taiwan had been able to expand its international space, granted there was a green light from Beijing. It can be argued that the progress in this field has mostly been symbolic and Taiwan’s ride with Ma at the steering wheel did not get the island nation far enough. Whether or not that’s the case is debatable, but ever since Xi Jinping made his remark that the Taiwan question could not be postponed forever, Ma’s offensive for Taiwan’s international space has lost its pace.
Economic integration with China has not been the sole motivation behind the current administration’s approach. It has not been the endgame, but rather – a means to an end which can be described as an attempt to overcome the limitations imposed on Taiwan by the One China Policy. Ma Ying-jeou decided not to fight the battle that could not be won and abandoned the notion of joining the United Nations championed by his predecessor Chen Shui-bian. Instead, he chose to cooperate with Beijing in order to end Taiwan’s international isolation. In other words, Ma shelved disputes and adopted a more pragmatic approach. This move enabled Taiwan to exercise its functional sovereignty, as Professor Paul Lim puts it in his paper “The European Union’s Relations with the Republic of China (Taiwan).” How exactly does functional sovereignty work in Taiwan’s case?
First of all, according to the principle of functional sovereignty, Taiwan’s engagement with the outside world requires no official recognition of the island’s statehood. What really matters is Taiwan’s meaningful participation in international organizations and its access to regional integration and to international trade. Secondly, even though Taiwan is not recognized as a state within this framework, it is effectively recognized as a separate economic and administrative entity. Finally, a sort of green light from China is still a prerequisite. This approach granted Taiwan some international space and signified a step forward. So, what exactly has Taiwan accomplished? Five cases related to Taipei’s international space stand out.
Firstly, in January 2011, the Schengen visa waiver treatment was introduced for Taiwanese passport holders. It is a remarkable success and the only example of Taipei’s preferential treatment by the EU in comparison to Beijing. It can be argued that Taiwan fulfilled procedural qualifications and there was no reason to uphold a visa regime. On the other hand, Taiwan also qualifies as a potential free trade partner of the EU – a fact acknowledged by the European Commission which stated that: “Taiwan has been a WTO member since 2002, and in December 2008 the country fulfilled an important WTO accession commitment by joining the WTO Government Procurement Agreement”. Still, the EU is not ready to start relevant negotiations, despite Taiwan’s efforts, due to China’s objections. On the flipside, the latter suggests that China could have effectively blocked Taiwan’s Schengen bid, had it decided to do so.
Secondly, Taiwan signed free trade agreements (FTA) with Singapore and New Zealand in July and November 2013 respectively. These agreements are Taipei’s only deals of this kind with a non-diplomatic ally and they were tacitly endorsed by Beijing. It is noteworthy that both FTAs were concluded soon after China signed its respective agreements.
Finally, Taiwan has been granted access to meetings of specialized international organizations. Following years of China’s misgivings and over a dozen cases of SARS outbreaks, in 2009, Taiwan finally began to participate in the gatherings of the World Health Assembly (WHA) as an observer under the name “Chinese Taipei.” Moreover, Taiwan’s delegation was invited to take part, as special guests, in the meeting of the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) in September 2013, again under the designation “Chinese Taipei.”
Has President Ma’s “flexible diplomacy” indeed granted Taiwan enough flexibility to exercise its functional sovereignty? That, of course, depends on one’s expectations. On one hand, signing two FTAs, entering the Schengen visa waiver program, and being able to participate in meetings of the UN’s specialized fora, may be considered token rewards for Ma’s non-confrontational approach and Taiwan’s economic engagement with the mainland. On the other, previous administrations were not even able to secure this much.
However, even the architect of Taiwan’s “flexible diplomacy” and cross-strait rapprochement does not seem to be satisfied with the results of his policies. In a recent interview for the BBC, Ma wasn’t trying to hide his disappointment. He did not go into the details discussed above, but criticizing Beijing for its surge on human rights lawyers, had not been his usual M.O. Ma also said that despite improvements in cross-strait relations, no meeting was held between him and Xi. This all indicates that what Ma has been able achieve was not enough. The important question is: Why? Is China losing patience because of the outcome of the Sunflower Movement? Is Xi’s assertiveness the reason? Or has Taiwan already cashed all the chips, since China was never prepared for more significant concessions?
Blaming the Sunflower Movement and the unexpected rejection of the controversial cross-strait services agreement sounds like a no brainer option. After all, the deal was seen as the cherry on top of Sino-Taiwanese economic engagement. However, this theory does not stand up to examination. After all, Xi made his remark about the need to solve the Taiwan issue months before Taiwanese students took to the streets and occupied the Legislative Yuan. In this case, is Xi’s leadership, which ignored Taiwan’s AIIB bid, to blame?
Again, the chronology of events does not entirely support this theory. Both FTAs mentioned above were concluded after Xi took the helm of China. Taiwan’s free trade deals with Singapore and New Zealand certainly matter, but they will not significantly reduce Taiwan’s dependence on trade with China, which accounts for over 17.5% of the island’s imports and over 26% of its exports. An FTA with the European Union, which Taiwan has been trying to pursue for years, would be a real game changer, as would the island’s membership in the Trans Pacific Partnership. China is well aware of this, and it won’t let it happen with or without Xi in charge. Beijing is already negotiating a Bilateral Investment Agreement with the EU, but the European Commission refuses to even commence relevant studies concerning Taiwan, citing its one-China policy and personnel shortages, while it’s currently employing over 30 thousand officials.
If that’s the case, is it fair to say that Ma was lured into a trap of economic overdependence on China? Or did he simply decide to play the hand he was dealt, acknowledging Taiwan’s limitations? Both, actually. But we will never find out how continued tensions across the strait would have affected Taiwan’s position on the international stage. Yet, we may get a taste of it, should Taipei’s relations with Beijing deteriorate again under a DPP government, no matter which side of the Taiwan Strait the potential policy shift originates from. Hopefully, this won’t to be the case. Hopefully, if elected, Tsai’s pragmatic approach will not succumb to the deeply green elements of her political camp. Hopefully, China will be able to acknowledge Tsai’s pragmatism and learn to live with the idea of a DPP President in Taiwan. If not, the Taiwanese public will miss the stability of the days when the ridiculously unpopular President Ma was in office.
Jakub Piasecki (謝佳倫 – Xie Jia-lun) – Graduate of the Faculty of International and Political Studies at the Jagiellonian University in Krakow. From 2009 to 2012, he worked for the European Parliament as a Press Officer and Policy Advisor on China. Following close to four years of service at the EP, he moved to Taipei, where he completed a Visiting Fellowship at the Taiwan Foundation for Democracy. He is currently a Visiting Fellow at the Taiwanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, where he conducts research on Taiwan’s relations with the European Union. His areas of expertise cover Taiwan and cross-strait relations. Fluent in English and Chinese. You can follow him on Twitter: @piasecki82