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A Cross-Straits Meeting of the Minds

Nov 16, 2015

The highly anticipated Xi Jinping-Ma Ying-jeou meeting did not let the audience down. Amidst complex wrestling, the meeting presented a pretty report card. This breakthrough meeting between the top leaders of the two sides of the Taiwan Strait brought the level of direct cross-Strait exchanges to a new high since 1949. From a long-term strategic perspective, it may offer a brand-new communication channel, one at the top level and most effective, providing a stronger guarantee for peaceful development.

Unlike in previous cross-Strait negotiations, the two leaders did not shy away from discussions of political issues.

In his statements upon opening the meeting, during the closed-door meeting, at the press conference and on board the returning flight, Ma repeatedly mentioned the 1992 Consensus and “one China with different interpretations”. He inadvertently created a precedent. If a topic is important, it should first be discussed with the mainland, even if it is a political issue.

Ma’s strong defense of “one China with different interpretations” was somehow unexpected. He should have known that the mainland only recognizes “one China” but not “different interpretations”. But this is indeed a question worth a discussion. The term “1992 Consensus” appeared after the year 2000. What the two sides discussed in 1992 was the one-China principle. The two sides actually have interpreted the 1992 Consensus differently since the concept was introduced. According to the mainland side, the consensus was that both sides of the Taiwan Strait would stick to the one-China principle and agree not to discuss the definition of one China for the time being. According to the Taiwan side, the consensus was “one China with different interpretations”. For quite some time, the mainland has stressed the “one China” part while Taiwan stresses the “different interpretations”, turning the 1992 Consensus into a point for ridicule by the green camp. Today both Beijing and Taipei have put up the banner of the 1992 Consensus, which thus becomes the label of a common political foundation. Then there is a need to strengthen the weaker link in this consensus, or in Ma’s words, to “consolidate the 1992 Consensus”. How can this be achieved? While visiting Beijing last May, Kuomintang (KMT) Chairman Eric Chu said that both sides “belong to one China, but with each side ascribing different contents and definitions to the concept of ‘one China.’” Chu also expressed the hope that the two sides would have a common line on the 1992 Consensus. The Xi-Ma meeting has handled this question in a more exquisite and skillful manner. To be specific, they have taken four steps.

First, the two sides separately made it clear that “the core of the 1992 Consensus is the one-China principle”. Xi said that “the significance of the 1992 Consensus lies with the one-China principle it embodies”. Ma stated in his opening speech that “the consensus on the one-China principle reached between the two sides of the Strait in November 1992 has been called the 1992 Consensus for short.” Both sides mentioned only one China and neither offered their respective interpretations.

Second, what on Earth does this “one China” mean? According to their respective constitution, it means the People’s Republic of China or the Republic of China. Actually since the term “one China” was coined, both sides have been having different expressions as to who represents the one China. The mainland must be well aware of that. Then at the Xi-Ma meeting, there seemed to be a tacit understanding that neither expressed his own interpretation in front of the other. This may hardly be inked in any agreement or text but was made clear by not saluting each other’s official title or wearing any political insignia. After the meeting, the two sides will of course continue expressing their respective interpretations. Differences on this question will persist until being finally resolved upon reunification.

Third, the two sides may “not express” “what it means” when the two sides meet, they have to have a shared idea and undertake shared responsibility as to “what it does not mean”. The mainland has never acknowledged the “different interpretations” mainly out of the concern that some people might put the “state-to-state relationship” fallacy or other pro-Taiwan independence arguments in the basket of “different interpretations”. Given this concern, Ma told Xi at the meeting that “the interpretations of the Taiwan side do not include ‘two Chinas’ or ‘one China, one Taiwan’ or “Taiwan independence’ because those are not allowed by the Republic of China’s Constitution”. Ma read every single word of this sentence from a prepared text and his statement may well be considered as a commitment. After this, Xi stressed that “[the 1992 Consensus] makes it clear that the mainland and Taiwan belong to the same one China and the relationship across the Strait is not a state-to-state one or between one China and one Taiwan”. Although there is literal difference, the two statements obviously have the same meaning, i.e., both sides belong to one country. In this connection, the two sides now do have a “consensus” and mutual commitment as to “what the 1992 Consensus does not mean”. This new point can be seen as the highlight of the Xi-Ma meeting.

The story is not over yet. As the fourth step, ingeniously, such an important common understanding was not written in an agreement signed by the two sides. Rather, it was introduced at separate press conferences, giving a visual demonstration of “different interpretations/expressions”. To be frank, Ma’s stress on “Republic of China” at the press conference seemed a bit “excessive”, for which the mainland audience felt uncomfortable. However, even after Ma’s vindication, the two leaders still had a nice conversation at the dinner table as planned. This is vivid proof that what the mainland opposes is actually not “different interpretations” but rather “interpretations deviating from the legal principle of one China”. So long as this principle is not tramped, it is your own interpretation and expression, on which I may not agree yet do not intend to quarrel with you. And on occasions where both sides are present, neither will express such different interpretations.

By these four steps, the two sides confirmed together that “the core of the 1992 Consensus is the one-China principle”. As to the “different interpretations”, neither made a literal concession and the mainland did not ink anything in support or opposition, but the problem has been taken off the table.

The Xi-Ma meeting did not last long, only a few hours including dinner. It was indeed commendable to have produced such rich fruits in such a short time. The deed has been accomplished by the two leaders only with the wisdom to tackle tough problems in an easy manner and the open mind to reach a compromise with friends. The cross-Strait relations have developed peacefully for over seven years and reached a periodic high at the meeting. Even though there will be higher objectives for the two sides to pursue, given the current state of cross-Strait relations and the political situation in Taiwan, they will hardly reach a level higher in the coming decade. In this light it is rather appropriate to describe the Xi-Ma meeting as a historic milestone.

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