A 'Greater Chinese Union' with Taiwan?
International Herald Tribune, 12 March 2004
With the heated rhetoric of the March 20 Taiwan presidential election jangling alarm bells in Beijing over the last few months, it may seem quixotic to ask what kind of ultimate cross-Strait settlement might be achievable over the next 15 years. After all the talk about independence, constitutions, referendums, missiles and arms sales, isn't just getting through the next 15 days enough to worry about?
But tensions are developing that have made the whole region edgy about where things are going. The concept of "One China" - which both sides accepted for many years, despite differing over its interpretation - is no longer the sticking plaster it used to be. The much favored "status quo" is proving ever harder to maintain. Beijing went so far as to threaten last year that "the use of force may become unavoidable." In such a climate, it's not too soon to start a serious debate about some kind of compromise, however unimaginable it might currently be.
The hardest fact that China and Taiwan will have to accept at the outset is also the most obvious: Neither side is going to achieve its most-preferred solution. Widely recognized de jure independence for Taiwan, or reunification on the same "one country, two systems" basis as Hong Kong, are both nonstarters. Beijing will continue to resist the first fiercely for the foreseeable future, and unfolding events in Hong Kong make acceptance of the second by Taiwan ever more unlikely.
Equally unlikely and unworkable are most other models for reunification or reintegration that have been put forward over the years. An asymmetric "federacy," linking an extremely autonomous Taiwan to the larger Chinese entity, even if offering the island a stronger separate identity and more actual independence than Hong Kong, would remain as hard for Taiwan to accept as any other overtly federal model. A kind of confederation in which China and Taiwan were sovereign equals, but acknowledged full reunification as their ultimate goal, has lingering support in Taipei but none at all in Beijing.
It is time to look for something previously untried, reflecting the highly distinctive cross-Strait situation. The idea of a "Greater Chinese Union" might be that solution - a concept somewhere between a confederation and the thinnest possible federation, one that doesn't fall easily within existing terminology, and one that might not be readily translatable into other languages.
In such an arrangement both sides would recognize a larger common identity, but Beijing would allow Taiwan not only to maintain its political system and way of life but also to have considerable international space, including membership of many international organizations. In its most extreme form - probably not realizable in any foreseeable future - it could be contemplated that Taiwan, while part of a greater sovereign entity, would nonetheless occupy its own United Nations seat.
The core of the idea is to draw upon Chinese history and culture - including a centuries-old tradition of indirect imperial governance - and an elastic interpretation of what it means to be Chinese.
Before any such settlement is achievable, several prerequisites would have to fall into place, difficult to imagine now, but not impossible over a 10- to 15-year time frame. Both sides would require more forward-looking leaderships, and there would need to be some convergence of political systems: The evolution of a more tolerant, pluralistic China would take the edge off Taiwan's search for a wholly separate identity.
If peace is to be maintained and reconciliation achieved, it is also crucial that the international community, particularly the United States, maintain a steady course, strongly discouraging any use of force by China and any unilateral attempt by Taiwan to change the sovereignty status quo.
If a sense of common identity is to emerge, or re-emerge, small symbolic gestures will be important, beginning sooner rather than later. Relaxation of China's hostility to Taiwan participating in the World Health Assembly - if not to its membership of the World Health Organization - would be an excellent start. So might the offer of participation by Taiwan in a joint space mission. And for Beijing to offer baseball-mad Taiwan the chance to play host to this event at the 2008 Olympics would do far more for cross-Strait relations than a decade's worth of missile-rattling.
Gareth Evans is president of the International Crisis Group, whose new report "Taiwan Strait IV" is at www.crisisweb.org.