Name game grounds cross-strait ties

Posted in China | 02-Jul-08 | Author: Wu Zhong| Source: Asia Times

Officials stand behind a poster inside the Taoyuan International Airport July 2, 2008.

HONG KONG - The opening of direct flights across the Taiwan Strait from this week will mark a breakthrough in once-stagnant relations between China and Taiwan. But although the flights, and the arrival of Chinese tourist dollars, will be a welcome uptick for economic ties, the two cross-strait rivals remain politically deadlocked in a diplomatic war of words.

The agreements on direct weekend flights and Taiwan's opening of tourism to mainland Chinese were reached in early June in Beijing by China's Association for Relations Across the Taiwan Strait (ARATS) and Taiwan's Straits Exchange Foundation (SEF). The two semi-official negotiating bodies were able to resume their talks, suspended since 1998, because Beijing and Taipei agreed to adhere to the so-called "1992 Consensus".

The 1992 Consensus was reportedly reached - verbally - by representative of both sides in Hong Kong in 1992. It established that both sides recognize there is only one China - and that both mainland China and Taiwan belong to the same China but agree to differ on the definition of that one China.

In this context, Beijing could say that one China is the People's Republic of China (PRC) while Taipei could continue to insist that it is the Republic of China (ROC). The 1992 Consensus is also often summed up as "one China, different interpretations". Such a pragmatic approach allows the two sides to bypass their sovereignty dispute and move on to negotiate on cross-strait policies.

The Consensus, however, only provides a basis for the two sides to discuss people-to-people affairs across the strait, and these tend to be domestic rather than transnational or international issues. Under the Consensus, it is impossible for the two sides to launch direct government-to-government talks. Neither are ARATS and SEF authorized to talk as proxies on political issues.

When international relations are concerned, both sides immediately abandon the Consensus. Since 1949, Beijing has required any country wishing to establish diplomatic relations to declare that there is only one China, that Taiwan is part of China and the PRC is the only legitimate government of China. This is Beijing's "one-China principle" for foreign relations. Countries with diplomatic ties to the PRC cannot have formal ties with Taiwan.

And because the ROC and PRC exclude each other, Taiwan does not pursue relations with countries that recognize the PRC. In international relations, there is no room for "one China, different interpretations" and the 1992 Consensus becomes invalid.

Only some 20 or so developing countries recognize the ROC and maintain diplomatic ties with Taipei. Under its "one-China principle", Beijing also objects to allowing Taiwan into international organizations as a separate state. Even the United States supports this policy, as former president Bill Clinton stated during his China visit in June 1998. "I had a chance to reiterate our Taiwan policy, which is that we don't support independence for Taiwan, or two Chinas, or one Taiwan-one China. And we don't believe that Taiwan should be a member of any organization for which statehood is a requirement," Clinton said at the time. Taiwan's past efforts to join the United Nations (UN) or the World Health Organization (WHO) have all failed.

Beijing also objects to the use of Taiwan's title - the ROC - in international organizations that do not require official statehood. For example, in the International Olympic Committee, Taiwan is called Chinese Taipei. And Taiwan joined the World Trade Organization (WTO) under the name of "the Separate Customs Territory of Taiwan, Penghu, Kinmen and Matsu".

Since Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou of the Kuomintang (KMT) party was sworn in on May 20, there has been new hope that Beijing may allow Taiwan to have a greater "international living space", namely to play a greater role in international affairs.

Exactly how to do this poses great challenges to leaders on both sides of the Strait. An imminent test is how Beijing views Taipei's application to join the WHO as an observer.

Chinese President Hu Jintao, in his capacity as general secretary of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), and the then KMT chairman Lien Chan agreed in 2005 that both parties would promote cross-Strait talks about Taiwan's participation in international groups with a priority on the WHO.

But Japanese media reported on June 23 that Wang Yi, China's newly appointed director of the Taiwan Affairs Office, told some Japanese reporters that China will never accept Taiwan as a WHO member but will work out a framework to allow Taiwan to share information with other countries concerning outbreaks of epidemics such as bird flu. Wang's reported comments aroused strong reactions in Taiwan, and three days later, Taiwan Affairs Office spokesperson Fan Liqing phoned Taiwanese media clarifying that the report by Japanese media was "not accurate". But she declined to elaborate.

The episode simply suggests that there are different views on the issue among China's policy makers toward Taiwan. Even when they had reached a consensus in support of Taiwan's WHO membership, practical issues remain unresolved.

The WHO is the coordinating authority for health issues within the UN system and its membership is open to all states. But when Taiwan was rejected by the UN in 1971, it was also rejected by the WHO.

would have to bend its one-China policy to accept Taiwan's WHO membership. It is unlikely that Beijing will do this as the result might bring fundamental changes to its international relations.

The WHO Constitution stipulates: "Territories which are not responsible for the conduct of their international relations may be admitted as Associate Members upon application made on their behalf by the Member or other authority responsible for their international relations.?

But there is no way Taiwan, as eager as it is to join the WHO, will accept being designated as a "territory" to become an associate member. After all, this means it would admit to being part of China.

Wang's comments may not be as contradictory as they appear. Beijing may be considering some way to allow Taiwan?s participation in WHO activities without a full membership. But even in this case, Taiwan may have to assume a modified name such as Chinese Taipei.

As long as the PRC and ROC remain rhetorically exclusive of each other, Taiwan will struggle for an expansion of its "international living space". And as long as this issue remains unresolved, political progress between the two sides will remain deadlocked, no matter how many flights or tourists cross the Strait.