The head of Taiwan's ruling party, Eric Chu, has concluded a trip to mainland China. Analyst Alan Romberg talks to DW about the significance of Chu's China visit and its implications for cross-Strait relations.
Eric Chu or Chu Li-luan held talks with Chinese President Xi Jinping and a host of other leaders during his just-concluded three-day trip to China. Although economic ties between China and Taiwan are growing ever closer, desire for political unification among the Taiwanese public has remained low, particularly among young people.
Chu was elected as leader of Taiwan's governing Nationalist Party early this year following the resignation of Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou as party chairman over a defeat in local polls in November last year. The defeat was attributed at least in part to the ruling party's efforts to intensify ties with Beijing. In March 2014, Taiwanese students also occupied parliament building in the capital Taipei to protest against a controversial trade agreement with China.
Whether Taiwan and the mainland are part of "One China" is expected to be one of the main themes in next year's presidential elections in Taiwan, in which Chu is seen as a potential candidate of the Nationalists. While the Nationalists are traditionally perceived as being in favor of uniting with China, the opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) is viewed as pro-independence.
In a DW interview, Alan Romberg, director of the East Asia program at the US-based think tank Stimson, says party-to-party meetings at this level between the two sides have been rare, and that Chu's meeting with Xi helped to reestablish links between the two parties at the top.
Romberg: Chu's meeting with Xi helped to 'consolidate the conceptual framework underlying future cooperation'
DW: What were the main results of the meeting between Eric Chu and Xi Jinping?
Alan Romberg: Kuomingtang (KMT or Chinese Nationalist Party) Chairman Eric Chu Li-luan's meeting with Chinese Communist Party Chairman Xi Jinping on May 4 not only helped to reestablish links between the two parties at the top but also to consolidate the conceptual framework underlying future cooperation.
It was hardly to be expected that they would agree on everything, and they did not. But of fundamental importance was that they reaffirmed their mutual commitment to advancing peaceful development of cross-Strait relations on the foundation of what is called the "1992 Consensus," a framework based on acceptance that there is "one China" but that is ambiguous enough to accommodate different interpretations.
The mainland has not been very generous with regard to allowing Taiwan to participate in international activities in line with the PRC's stance against allowing anything that could be interpreted as representing "one China, one Taiwan" or "two Chinas."
And this has likely cost it considerable good will in Taiwan and contributed to the current level of negativism in Taiwan today even about economic arrangements that many feel have benefited only the privileged in Taiwan but not the common man and woman.
Chu addressed these issues in his meeting with Xi - as, in fact, did Xi - and we can expect that efforts will be made in the future to ensure that the benefits of cross-Strait ties will be more widely felt on the island.
Why did it take six years for such a meeting to take place?
Party-to-party meetings at this level have been rare - only three have been held since 1949 - the first being when the KMT was out of office in 2005 and the other two taking place while the KMT was in office in 2008 and 2009. During the period when Taiwan's president, Ma Ying-jeou, was also chairman of the KMT between 2009 and 2014, such meetings were not possible due to concerns on both sides.
The PRC was worried that a meeting with Ma would imply acceptance of either "one China, one Taiwan" or "two Chinas," and Taiwan felt that if Ma engaged in such a meeting only in his party capacity it would downgrade his standing as president. The KMT's overwhelming defeat in local elections last November and Ma's subsequent replacement as party chair by Chu Li-luan opened the way once again to a meeting between party leaders.
Chu also affirmed his party's support for a consensus reached between Chinese and Taiwanese negotiators in 1992 that is interpreted by Beijing as part of a process leading to eventual unification. Why is this so important?
It is important to understand that the "1992 Communiqué" was not a single document subscribed to by officials from both sides. Rather it emerged from the acceptance by both sides in separate statements that there is "one China," with each side free to express its view on this orally.
Beijing would have preferred that no definition be given to the political content of "one China," and in fact the PRC has never offered such a definition beyond saying that both Taiwan and the mainland belong to "one China" whose sovereignty and territory are indivisible.
For its part, Taiwan openly said that each side had its "respective interpretation" and that, for Taiwan, the definition of "one China" was "the Republic of China." While both accepted that the two sides of the Strait belonged to that "one China," they have also recognized that neither side exercises jurisdiction over the other.
Chu Li-luan did not use the phrase "respective interpretations" in his meeting with Xi Jinping, and he did not refer to the "Republic of China." But he did say that the "content" of the "1992 Consensus" was "defined differently" by the two sides. So in essence he adhered to the same position that the Taiwan government under Ma Ying-jeou has held to all along.
While Beijing has not endorsed this position, it has not contradicted it, realizing that to do so would likely stymie progress in cross-Strait relations. Instead, the mainland has taken Taiwan's adherence to "one China" as good enough to reach 21 agreements with Taipei since the KMT took office in 2008 and to support bourgeoning trade, investment and travel between the two sides over that period.
What impact could this issue have on the 2016 Taiwanese presidential election?
Even though the opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) only holds a minority of seats in the Taiwan legislature, with the help of the KMT speaker of the legislature the opposition has blocked further progress on cross-Strait agreements at this point. Moreover, the opposition is seen as the likely victor in the January 2016 presidential election and even possibly (though much less likely) able to seize a majority of seats in the simultaneous legislative elections.
The importance of this is that the DPP asserts that there was no Consensus, whether called the "1992 Consensus" or something else, and that Taiwan, even under the name Republic of China, is not connected to the PRC. Beijing has responded that without the foundation of accepting the "1992 Consensus" (with its "one China" premise) and without rejecting "Taiwan independence" (a long-standing DPP cause), cross-Strait relations would face major problems.
Against this background, the Chu-Xi meeting served to affirm not only that the KMT would by and large adhere to the same "one China" position that the KMT government has supported over the past seven years, but to draw a bright line between the KMT's position and the DPP's position as well as to reinforce at the highest level the PRC's insistence that "one China" is essential to smooth cross-Strait relations in the future.
The DPP's standard bearer, party chair Tsai Ing-wen, has sought to defuse the issue by pledging to maintain the "status quo" of peace and stability across the Strait and to adhere to a consistent and predictable course. But she has not accepted - and in all probability will not accept - the concept of "one China." Nor has she foresworn "Taiwan independence" as an ultimate goal.
No one thinks she will press for fundamental changes now or during her presidency, should she win. But Beijing's insistence on the central importance of embracing the core concept of "one China" also is extremely unlikely to change.
Chu is seen as potential presidential candidate next year. Has he said anything about how Taiwan's ties to the mainland could change under his lead?
Chu Li-luan has made changing the reality and perception of the KMT's approach to both domestic and cross-Strait policies the centerpiece of his task as party chair. At the same time, however, he is also seen as the only potential KMT presidential candidate with a realistic prospect of defeating Tsai in January.
However, in order to enhance his credibility as party chair - and perhaps to avoid what many see as inevitable KMT defeat - Chu has sworn on multiple occasions that he will not run in the 2016 contest. Instead, he insists, he will serve out his four-year term as mayor of Taiwan's largest city, New Taipei, a term to which he won re-election by a very slim margin in November.
Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou resigned as party chairman over a defeat in local polls in November 2014
Whether Chu will allow himself to be "drafted" by the KMT is still a somewhat open question, but under the KMT presidential nomination rules it will be decided within ten days and most betting is that he will not run.
Thus, the establishment of firmer party-to-party relations with the CCP may serve as the basis for the KMT pushing for various developments over the next four years, but it is likely to have its greatest effect after that if the KMT retakes the presidency in 2020, perhaps with Chu himself as the island's leader.
Chinese President Xi Jinping offered "equal" talks to resolve their political differences, but only if Taiwan accepts it is part of China, a concept many Taiwanese balk at. What does President Xi mean by "equal" talks?
Xi Jinping's call for talks as "equals" is not new. It does not mean that the mainland will accept an "equal" role for Taiwan in the international community. But Xi has placed increasing emphasis on the need to take full account of the feelings and aspirations of the people in Taiwan, including their unique history and culture, at the same time he promotes closer relations as one "people" tied by blood, history and culture.
His emphasis on this occasion was not on ultimate reunification - though that remains the PRC's openly stated goal. Rather it was on the continued peaceful development of cross-Strait relations for the benefit of all Chinese, and the willingness to continue to give priority to Taiwan people and businesses to participate in the development of the country.
Alan Romberg is a distinguished fellow and the director of the East Asia program at the US-based think tank The Stimson Center. Before joining Stimson he worked on Asian issues, both in and out of government, including 27 years in the State Department, with over 20 years as a US Foreign Service Officer.