Written by J. Michael Cole.

With Tsai Ing-wen of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) well ahead in the polls and a sustained negative campaign by the incumbent Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) failing to influence the numbers, Taiwan’s ruling party has shifted gear in the past week by fanning the flames of fear. From the unsubstantiated claim that Taiwan stands to lose as many as 18 diplomatic allies if the DPP were elected on Jan. 16 to warnings that tensions could return to the Taiwan Strait after eight years of relative stability, the message is clear: If the DPP wins, the sky’s going to fall. And today Beijing joined the chorus of fear-mongers by threatening the total collapse of bilateral talks if Ms. Tsai doesn’t recognize a “consensus” that may or may not exist.

China’s intervention was ostensibly sparked by remarks by Ms. Tsai during a televised debate between Taiwan’s three presidential candidates on Sunday to the effect that the “1992 consensus,” the framework under which Taipei and Beijing have held negotiations since 2008, was only one of many options.

Beijing has long insisted that adhering to the “1992 consensus” was a precondition for talks, and the KMT under President Ma Ying-jeou, who will be stepping down in May next year after serving two four-year terms, was happy to oblige, if only because doing so presumably gave it an edge over the DPP, which refuses to recognize the consensus due in large part to the “one China” clause at its core — not to mention the fact that the very existence of the “consensus” is under question.

During a regular press conference on Wednesday, Ma Xiaoguang, the spokesman for China’s Taiwan Affairs Office (TAO), repeated the mantra that the “1992 consensus” is the one and only framework under which cross-strait talks can occur. If Ms. Tsai refuses to abide by it, Ma warned, “the institutionalized cross-strait dialogue mechanism will be affected.” It could even “collapse,” he said.

While ominous, such threats should be taken in their proper context. For one thing, Mr. Ma’s comments were ostensibly an attempt by Beijing to corner Ms. Tsai and to give her opponent from the KMT, Eric Chu, a much-needed boost.

Beyond that, we should note that Beijing’s rigid official rhetoric is not necessarily an indicator of policy. Oftentimes it is what Chinese officials have to say, and the principal audience is domestic rather than external. In many ways, Beijing has been hostage to its own rhetoric and ideology, so much so that to depart from the official line could be interpreted domestically as a sign of weakness on the part of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).

Given Ms. Tsai’s repeated vows to maintain the “status quo” in the Taiwan Strait, as well as her commitment to engaging China constructively and “with sincerity,” Beijing would be shooting itself in the foot if, come May 20, it suddenly “collapsed” dialogue with Taipei, a decision that could only succeed in propelling Taiwan away from China and undo eight years of normalization that, by almost every yardstick, were politically beneficial to Beijing. Notwithstanding the TAO’s rhetoric and the more extremist elements in the CCP who would choose to act on its threats, we can therefore expect that Beijing will act pragmatically in the initial phase of a Tsai administration, during which it would assess her commitment to dialogue and continuity (keen on improving Taiwan’s moribund economy, Ms. Tsai knows all too well that unduly alienating the world’s second-largest economy and Taiwan’s No. trading partner is not a viable policy).

Another problem that could undermine Beijing’s ability to coerce Taiwan using the “1992 consensus” is the fact that the definition of “one China” appears to have been shifting. Over the years, the KMT was able to get away with its adherence to “one China” by insisting that both sides had a different interpretation of what “China” means, fuzziness that allowed both sides to claim victory. For Beijing, “one China” meant the People’s Republic of China (PRC), whereas in Taipei it stood for the Republic of China (ROC). Increasingly, however, it has become clear that “one China” is one thing and one thing alone: the PRC. It didn’t help, either, when President Ma, meeting President Xi in Singapore last month, “forgot” to mention the crucial “different interpretations” in his address. If, as seems to be the case, “one China” loses its ambiguity and comes to mean the PRC, it’s not just the DPP that Beijing will have to worry about, but a large number of supporters of the KMT as well, who certainly do not agree with becoming part of the PRC.

History also shows us that the “1992 consensus” is not, as Bloomberg incorrectly reported today, “the framework that has underpinned negotiations between the two [sides] for more than two decades.” In fact, despite the DPP’s non-recognition of the “consensus,” Taipei and Beijing did hold negotiations during the Chen Shui-bian years (2000-2008) and made a number of steps toward liberalization, such as opening the “three small links” for trade, transportation and postal services, allowing direct cross-strait flights during the Lunar New Year holidays, and laying the groundwork for future agreements for which the Ma administration would take full credit. Also during that period, approved Taiwan investment in China rose dramatically (almost threefold from 2000 to 2006), as did exports and import trade volume (see Kastner, p. 38).

This tells us that Beijing — a pragmatic Beijing — can and likely will negotiate with Taiwan under a framework other than the “1992 consensus” it insists on, which is exactly what Ms. Tsai has been proposing. The ball is therefore in Beijing’s camp, and blame for any “collapse” in ties, which could quickly lead to renewed tensions, would lie at its feet rather than Taipei’s.

J. Michael Cole is Editor of Thinking Taiwan and Senior Fellow in the China Policy Institute, University of Nottingham.

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