Taipei mayor Ko Wen-je had a significant breakthrough in his efforts to deal with China this past week. There has been uncertainty over whether this year’s Taipei-Shanghai Forum would occur, since the PRC insists that all such interaction should occur under the One China framework. As One China is decidedly at odds with mainstream public opinion in Taiwan, Ko has resisted China’s demands for a “friendly gesture.” However, this past weekend the deputy mayor of Shanghai visited, and the two city governments reached an agreement that the forum would be held and Ko would travel to Shanghai to take part. What kind of “friendly gesture” did Ko commit himself to that the PRC found acceptable enough to green light the event?
Ko did not “accept” the 92 Consensus. Instead, he stated that he “respects” (zunzhong, 尊重) and “understands” (liaojie, 了解) the 92 Consensus. However, he stressed that his core position was laid out in the 2015 New Perspective, which he explained at a press conference with PRC media on March 30. At that time, he stated that he would respect the agreements that had already been signed as well as the history of interaction, and on this political foundation, he would proceed according to the principals of mutual recognition*, mutual understanding, mutual respect, and mutual cooperation, all the while maintaining the spirit of “one extended family on both sides of the straits.” 他當時 提出兩岸關係「一五新觀點」，表示願尊重兩岸過去已經簽署的協議和互動的歷史，並在既有的政治基礎上，以「互相認識、互相了解、互相尊重、互相合作」的原則，並秉持「兩岸一家親」的精神。
(* This “recognition” (renshi, 認識) is closer to understanding or knowing than the term used for formal diplomatic recognition (chengren, 承認) of states.)
What does all this diplomatic gobbledygook mean? Unfortunately, I’m not a diplomat, and I don’t speak fluent diplomatese. So keep in mind that I might be missing something.
Let’s start with the part about the 92 Consensus. Ko respects and understands it. “Understand” is useless word. It does not constrain him in any way. “Respect” is trickier. I’ve asked a few people what this means, and it also doesn’t seem to have a clear meaning. That is, respecting something could be as meaningless as taking note of it. It does not seem to indicate that Ko is promising to adhere to or be constrained by the 92 Consensus. In other words, as I understand it, the whole statement that Ko respects and understands the 92 Consensus is completely empty. It sounds good, but it doesn’t actually mean anything.
If the first statement is empty, the 2015 New Perspective must be the critical part. All of those “mutual” statements are fairly meaningless. They simply say that the two sides will act civilly toward each other. They certainly don’t imply anything about One China. The final statement, about being one big family, has a tiny bit of content, since stanch Taiwan nationalists won’t admit to being part of the Chinese family in any sense. However, this statement is also full of ambiguity, since it is easily dismissed as something about common origins hundreds of years ago or similar cultural heritages. Again, this all sounds good, but when you look closely, it is mostly hot air.
That leaves the part about respecting the existing political foundation of agreements that have already been signed and of the history of interaction. Finally, here is something more concrete: Ko respects the status quo. What is that status quo? Well, it includes all those negotiations in which the ROC insisted (in varying degrees of diplomatic vagueness) on its version of One China as well as on the ROC’s right to exist (and its right to sign agreements). In other words, if you really want to find One China in that blob of historical interaction, you can. However, you can also find plenty of support for a sovereign, independent ROC in that same blob. It is ambiguous and flexible, as long as both sides are willing to let it be ambiguous and flexible.
Does this sound familiar? To me, this is strikingly similar to Tsai Ing-wen’s statement that she will maintain the status quo by respecting the existing constitutional order, including all the cross-straits agreements that have previously been signed. What does that mean? Again, it can mean lots of things. If you want to look narrowly at the ROC constitution, it is a document originally written in China in a time when One China was not in dispute at all. Or, you can focus on the fact that the 23 million people in Taiwan have exercised sovereignty for over six decades, doing things like collecting taxes, educating children, electing presidents, and amending the constitution.
The PRC sent out signals that Tsai’s position was not acceptable since she has not accepted One China. However, they seem to be willing to work with Ko Wen-je, who seems (to me) to be taking almost exactly the same position as Tsai. It might be different because Ko is a mayor in local government, or I might be missing something important buried in those statements. Still, this might be an indication that the PRC, however reluctantly, will engage with the Tsai administration rather than simply try to isolate it.
I have to admit that when I saw that the Taipei-Shanghai Forum was back on track, I expected that Ko would have made some important gesture. The news reports seemed clear that China was making this a precondition, and Ko had suggested that the Forum was in danger of being cancelled because he was unwilling to budge. The various headlines also led me to believe that Ko had, in fact, changed his position. However, as I read through the details, I was surprised to find that I could not find any significant shifts. Ko spurted out a lot of wonderful sounding bullshit phrases without ever saying anything substantive, and that turned out to be sufficient for China. I had not expected that Ko would be able to use ambiguity so deftly. My estimation of his political skills just went up considerably.
While this could be a signal of how China will deal with a future Tsai administration, it could also be that they are attempting to cultivate Ko as an alternate conduit to Taiwan. That is, rather than legitimizing Tsai’s administration and cross-straits policy by dealing with the central government, they might have decided that it is better to deal with the Taipei mayor. They might even try to build him up to become a rival to Tsai. However, to do this, they have had to accept his position, with only the fig leaf of a few pleasant sounding but meaningless platitudes. To put it another way, they weren’t able to move him toward the blue camp. If they are cultivating him, they are building up a person who has not made any public commitments toward their preferred position.