Recognize the Republic of China

July 28, 2013 § Leave a comment


By Chieh-Ting Yeh

At a symposium held at the end of April, Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) deputy Jen-to Yao, thought to be a reliably strident advocate for Taiwan’s independence, sharply criticized his party’s central independence ideology. In response to the controversy that followed, Yao clarified in an online essay that while he was not giving up the fight for Taiwan’s sovereignty, he realized that the strategies and methods in service of the movement needed to change to fit the times. Yao proposed instead that independence supporters push for Taiwan to establish formal diplomatic relations with the People’s Republic of China.

But, wait. Diplomatic relations with the PRC—which means that the PRC would have to first recognize the Republic of China (on Taiwan) as a legitimate state under international law. One might think: How is this any less of a fantasy? The PRC goes into a fit when a third state threatens to recognize Taiwan. What incentive does it have to break its own rule? Doesn’t the PRC adamantly reject notions of “two Chinas,” or even “one Taiwan, one China”?

Very simply, though, it is in the interests of the PRC to recognize the ROC.

If China envisions “peaceful coexistence across the Strait and a concerted effort towards a unified nation” with Taiwan, then normalizing relations with Taiwan is the PRC’s best option. Leaders in Beijing can make a generous offer: “The PRC and the ROC recognize each others’ sovereignty as legitimate states under international law, but as members of the same Chinese nation, the two sides commit to fulfilling a specific unification timetable.” Basically, the deal offers current independence with eventual unification. The PRC could then effectively lock in the status quo, wipe out Taiwan’s independence movement, initiate an actual unification timetable and gain a new ally in the Pacific. For the PRC to recognize the ROC, however, it still needs to hop over the psychological hurdle of “One China.”

China’s attitude towards Taiwan has long been based on the dogma that “there is only one China, and that one China cannot be split.” Taiwan, to hang on to an existence separate from the Mainland, has come up with many compromised interpretations of that dogma. The current state line is the so-called 92 Consensus (which, according to Taiwan anyway, states that “both sides agree there is one China but disagree on what ‘China’ is,” but China conveniently drops the latter half about disagreeing). President Ma’s administration has translated this as “mutual non-recognition of sovereignty but mutual non-denial of jurisdiction.” The essence of this very acrobatic phrase is that while the two sides do not recognize each other as states, they have to accept the reality that the two governments operate independently of each other. Even though China has not responded directly to this stance and officially rejects any deviation from its dogma, it effectively bases its interactions with Taiwan on this framework.

The key assumption of the status quo is that a nation is defined by sovereignty. If China is a single nation, its sovereignty cannot be split into two. However, this formulation is disingenuous because the Chinese concept of “nation” (guojia) is actually different from the Western idea of the sovereign nation-state. Under the nation-state system, a state is merely a government that holds the allegiance of people living within a specified geographic border. In exchange for the perquisites of being a part of the international legal order, the state upholds its responsibilities within that order.

On the other hand, the idea of Zhongguo for the Chinese is a more expansive concept. China’s imperial history has tolerated periods in which multiple states existed within what we consider to be “China” today. These states exercised independent sovereignty and exchanged diplomats even while vying to be the eventual unifier. What drives the Chinese concept of guojia is not just the institution of the state, but also the emotional and cultural connections that goes beyond political boundaries. Therefore, when the PRC clumsily equated Western style sovereignty and jurisdiction with the idea of the one Chinese nation, it unnecessarily obstructed itself from resolving the Taiwan question. Based on historical traditions, the PRC and the ROC can mutually recognize each other’s sovereignty without contradicting the idea of one China.

After overcoming this psychological barrier, the PRC can immediately reap the benefit of not having to live a lie. By continuing to insist that both sides (tacitly) agree to separate jurisdiction without recognizing sovereignty, the PRC perpetuates some absurd gaps between fantasy and reality. President Ma Ying-jeou, who was elected by a wild majority of the Taiwanese people, lost sleep on what PRC officials could call him (Mr. President? Mr. Chairman? Mr. Ma?) on official visits to Taiwan. Tourists on both sides just wanted to enjoy the scenery in Guilin or the oyster omelettes in Shihlin but had to put away their official passports and spend more money just to get a “passport that is not a passport”. President Ma is now pushing for representative offices on both sides. He says, “the offices will offer all the services of embassies, but I have to stress that they are absolutely not embassies!”

Please, is this really necessary? Questions of political symbolism aside, when the two sides refuse to acknowledge the reality that jurisdiction must mean sovereignty, normal relations retreat to ground zero and never emerge: what to do with “official representatives that are not official,” “foreign laws that are not foreign” and all such ridiculous, unnecessary exercises. If China were to recognize Taiwan, the two can deal with each other as two normal states, with its agreements in full force under international law.

The second benefit for the PRC is that it will finally be able to handle those in Taiwan who support “independence” over the “status quo.” Much of the Taiwanese people believe that the status quo is independence, and they want this current independence to be respected. At a fundamental level, the Taiwanese people, regardless of whether they look forward to independence, support the status quo indefinitely, or dream of unification, can all agree that they, at the very least, desire respect from the PRC. If the PRC unequivocally recognized the ROC, wouldn’t that satisfy the majority’s desire to be respected, and erase the independence movement’s main appeal? The movement would then be reduced to calling for an outright revolution to topple the ROC regime—which, despite past grievances, will only become less reasonable as long as the current government continues to operate through proper liberal democratic processes. If the PRC recognizes the ROC, this locks in the legitimacy of the ROC government and eliminates the need for more radical independence ideologies.

After the PRC fulfills Taiwan’s need to be simply respected, what is left for the two sides to talk about except unification? Once the PRC recognizes the ROC, I believe the two sides will sooner or later begin unification negotiations. For the PRC will have shown an amount of goodwill so great that Taiwan must respond in kind. After mainstream independence vaporizes, the pro-unification agenda should dominate public discourse. Furthermore, as China adopts a respectful stance towards Taiwan, the cultural, linguistic and blood ties between the two should naturally bring them closer together. In the era of regional consolidation and free flow of goods and labor, how can two states that share so much history and commonalities not be expected to merge? It is also good news for the international community for the two states to drop hostilities and peacefully agree to unify.

Finally, a China that actively normalizes relations with Taiwan will be seen as mature and responsible. For US-China relations, this removes a large bargaining chip the Americans have played for years: the US could no longer use Taiwan to extract favors from China. Taiwan will also no longer need to keep buying weapons from the US as threats from China simply disappear. The Taiwan lobby in Washington will also no longer be able to argue for “Taiwan’s peaceful self-determination”. All these developments would change the geopolitical map in East Asia in China’s favor by increasing its goodwill in the region while denying the US a close ally.

How should the Taiwanese public react to a deal like this? The most fundamental supporters of the ROC’s legitimate claim over China will not like this, since this forces them to accept the PRC as a state and its rule over the Mainland. However, this is a fringe opinion in Taiwan that requires an even more schizophrenic separation between fantasy and reality. Any pro-unification supporter would likely be in favor of this deal, but for moderate unificationists the question will be what conditions to require of China for eventual unification. Should the PRC democratize? Decrease its wealth gap? Strengthen rule of law? If these demands seem quixotic now, imagine the reaction if they were actually made.

Radical independence supporters will obviously reject any such proposal that legitimizes the ROC, but the moderate independence supporters, those who assert that “ROC sovereignty is independence,” will have theirs goals fulfilled. But what to do with the unification timetable? Would they accept eventual unification in exchange for a limited period of independence? If so, how long should this period be? 50 years? 10 years? Even three years? The pro-independence camp must have better answers to these questions, including what conditions (if any) are required for political talks, the fundamental definition of independence, and how Taiwan should conduct itself after it earns de jure statehood.

One may notice that on the issues, moderate pro-unification and pro-independence supporters are actually on the same page. Why not sit down and hash some of these answers out together?

Also in April, former KMT spokesperson I-hsin Chen published an op-ed in the South China Morning Post, directly calling on PRC President Xi Jinping to “confront the existence of the Republic of China,” and that “if both sides cannot reach a consensus over this…there will be no consensus on anything.” Although he stopped short of saying anything politically incorrect, it was clear to all regular observers that he was calling for the PRC to formalize relations with the ROC. Prof. Xu Bodong of Beijing Union University’s Taiwan Reseach Institute also recently said that “cross-straits consolidation may produce a new Chinese state with a new name, a new flag or even a new national anthem,” which implies that the concept of “China” exists beyond just the current states of the PRC and the ROC.

For too many centuries, China and Taiwan have had a twisted and perverse relationship. Wouldn’t all parties be better off speaking to the desires of the Taiwanese people to be respected before pushing for overall consolidation? In this way, China would not simply be the Western concept of a nation-state, but something that is longer lasting, more encompassing, more worthy of the aspiration of the people across the Strait.

This piece originally appeared in the Taiwanese magazine Commonwealth and was translated by the author.

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