It’s Time for Taiwan to Take the Initiative

‘Compromise is not the way forward, and patience is simply a delay tactic. Only by taking the initiative can the people of Taiwan take control of their fate’
Photo: J. Michael Cole / Thinking Taiwan
Wuer Kaixi

International affairs have undergone enormous changes since the 1970s, and this in turn has influenced Taiwan-China relations. To take some notable examples, the U.S. established diplomatic relations with the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in 1979, the implementation of economic reforms has transformed China into a superpower, shifting the global balance of power, while its domestic politics have become increasingly tyrannical, and China’s attitude to the outside world both arbitrary and peremptory. At the same time, slow economic growth has made the West more reliant on China.

Taiwan has also long seen its development as tied to China, and since the Lee Teng-hui (李登輝) era (1988-2000) this has led to an evolution away from the principle of “mutual exclusivity” — or, to adapt a Chinese idiom to its English equivalent, “This town isn’t big enough for both of us” — to one of accommodation. Unfortunately, as the PRC’s international status has grown, it has asserted itself with exclusionary policies aimed at pressuring Taiwan and undermining the autonomy of Taiwan’s China policy.

It is obviously inappropriate to return to the days of mutual exclusivity. All the same, none of Taiwan’s policy initiatives so far has had the effect of leveraging Taiwan’s position of weakness to one of strength. Such policies include the Chinese Nationalist Party’s (KMT) (under Lee Teng-hui) “one China according to respective interpretations,” the Democratic Progressive Party’s (DPP) “scorched-earth diplomacy” or “de-sinicization” and, with return of the KMT, Ma Ying-jeou’s (馬英九) “no unification, no independence, no use of force.”

Today, the greatest threat to Taiwan’s future continues to be its marginalization by the PRC, and it remains for Taiwan to tackle the basic root causes of that problem. The current policies on the table — no matter how they are framed, whether in terms of Tsai Ing-wen’s (蔡英文) “maintaining the status quo” or Hung Hsiu-chu’s (洪秀柱) “1992 Consensus” — do not do this. All they amount to is leaving the question of Taiwan’s status to future generations.

Putting aside the broad realities of the cross-strait situation, the biggest problem with Taiwan’s cross-strait policy, in my opinion, is that those in power accepted a disadvantaged position too early, blindly abandoning the initiative and handicapping Taiwan by passively waiting for China to make the first move. Taiwan’s cross-strait policies are, in effect, universally based on China’s positions and propositions, a mode that has evolved over the past 20 or 30 years into one of shameful compromise. Across the spectrum of Taiwan’s political divide, every cross-strait policy put forward so far has lacked vision and can be characterized as a variation on a defensive holding pattern.

But compromise is not in Taiwan’s best interests and patience can only lead to more sacrifices. Active attack is the only way to grasp the initiative.

My proposal is that we amend the constitution and all relevant laws to legally recognize the reality that the PRC governs Mainland China. I think this proposal is aligned with the realities of history and the realities of Taiwan’s broadly accepted position of “mutual non-repudiation.” I think it is also a proposal that can be accepted and supported by the majority of Taiwanese and by the international community. It would force Beijing to accept that the two sides of the strait are indeed divided. But its greatest advantage would be that it returns the upper hand of debate to Taiwan.

The Republic of China (ROC) lost control of Mainland China in 1949, and the PRC has long been recognized by the United Nations and the vast majority of countries worldwide. After 60 years of PRC rule — regardless of whether it disgusts many Chinese and they long for the day they can completely overthrow Chinese Communist Party (CCP) rule — democratization and liberalization in China can only pragmatically be achieved within the framework of the PRC. Meanwhile, after decades of development and achieving legitimacy through democratization, most Taiwanese accept the reality of the ROC rule, but they cannot imagine that the people of the PRC can have the political rights accorded to ROC citizens. The reason is precisely because they are citizens of the PRC. National consciousness is something that it would be reckless of those in power on either side of the Taiwan Strait to ignore.

There may be rifts in Taiwan politics, and the two main political parties may have divergent views on national identity, but when it comes to international and PRC recognition of the ROC they agree, and uniformly condemn Beijing’s refusal to recognize its existence. At this point, I need to point to a simple matter of logic. When, in denial of the facts, someone refuses to recognize us, what position do we need to take in order for them to affirm our existence?

When it comes to the Taiwanese, regardless of whether they support unification or independence, or how they regard the status of their nationality, they clearly see the reality of the existence of the PRC, and it is a proposition that most of them can reasonably accept. There is no debate about or opposition to this in Taiwan. On the contrary, it is the starting point for consensus on national identity.

According to the so-called “one China” principle, any given country in the world can only, at one time, recognize one China government or the other. But looking at the opposition between Taiwan and China from a historical perspective, since the PRC took control of China, there has been a Cold War mentality about this global need to take sides. From 1970 until today, the U.S., out of dogma, out of habit, out of fear of Beijing, probably hopes that Taiwan will cleave to the status quo — namely that both sides mutually refuse the status of the other’s sovereignty. But the truth is that this situation is where recognition of the PRC and denial of the ROC begins.

Taiwan today is a democratic country. To continue to adhere to the dogma of the Jimmy Carter era, no matter whether it is in the interests of Taiwan or not, is unreasonable. The U.S. and other democratic nations should not only understand this, they should give Taiwan a fair opportunity and space to explain its position. No matter what country we are talking about, none of them can deny the existence of the PRC. Raised in accordance with the practices of these countries and also in a manner that is appropriate to Taiwan’s interests and its consensus-held views, this is something that could give Taiwan greater voice in the international arena. It would also point to the fact that the unreasonable international situation Taiwan finds itself in today is a heavy responsibility that the U.S. and other democratic nations have to shoulder.

We can imagine that for Beijing to recognize the existent of the ROC at this juncture would be enormously difficult, but it is even more difficult to imagine it refusing to accept Taiwan’s recognition, because that would be denying its own existence. Taken from a historical position, the PRC was founded on the back on the ROC, when the two parted ways in war that, in turn, led to “peace” and a host of breakthroughs that have opened up trade and relations and led to a relative normalization between the two political entities. By taking the initiative, Taiwan will obviously be pointing to a problem, but it will also be offering an olive branch in the hope that a situation bred out of war can be resolved in international courts.

The aim of a constitutional amendment, or a new interpretation of the constitution, or of amending certain laws to recognize the PRC, is not to provoke China, where feelings about unification run deep. Nevertheless, it is important for Beijing to acknowledge the critical fact that to make a break with the current separation of the two sides of the Strait would logically require either the dissolution of the ROC — or of the PRC. A third option, after negotiations, would be for the two governments to agree to simultaneously dissolve and enter upon a new national framework. The fourth option — and this is my argument — would be for the two governments to decide to honestly face reality and acknowledge the fact of separation, even if the future does hold the possibility of unification.

At a glance, the first and second options are unrealistic, while the third option would require negotiations based on trust and goodwill that simply do not exist under the current situation, in which Beijing threatens and isolates Taiwan. Based on this logic, the regime in Beijing, even from the perspective of its continuing agenda, should see that the only way for the two sides of the Taiwan Strait to extricate themselves from the current standoff would be for them to officially recognize each other.

Actively changing the constitution and the laws to recognize the PRC will come at a small price and will also give a voice to the people, challenging China and the West to release Taiwan from its shackles, while also fundamentally changing the way we think about cross-strait policy. Compromise is not the way forward, and patience is simply a delay tactic. Only by taking the initiative can the people of Taiwan take control of their fate.


Wu’er Kaixi, a Tiananmen dissident, is an independent legislative candidate in Taichung. This article originally appeared on his Facebook page on August 2, 2015.

One Response to “It’s Time for Taiwan to Take the Initiative”

August 02, 2015 at 9:23 am, K Ma said:

Changing the ROC constitution to recognise PRC control of the mainland makes perfect sense but it will change nothing on the Chinese side.The PRC wants eventual control of Taiwan and will reject anything that interferes with that.Simply put,the CCP has all the power and no need to compromise.I want Taiwan to keep its freedom but constructive analysis must start from a realistic understanding of Chinese power and motivations.Changing the constitution might be useful in forcing some reality on those silly enough to still talk of Nanjing as the ROC capital.That would be a healthy change but only a start.Taiwan’s survival requires much more work.


Comments are welcome, but will be moderated. Remarks containing abusive language, personal attacks or self-promotion will not be published. We encourage healthy discussion and, above all, tolerance of other's views.