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China's Taiwan 'Peace Overture': Old wine, new bottle

Commentary, 18 October 2007
Progress over the cross-strait issue can only proceed with new thinking from Beijing; the current offer has been heard before.

On Monday, in the context of rising cross-strait tension, Chinese President Hu Jintao used his keynote speech at the seventeenth party congress to offer talks with Taiwan. The call for discussions are nothing but old wine in new bottles however:

  • Hu’s call for talks with Taiwan contain nothing of substance which is novel. It represents no new policy change in Beijing.
  • The precondition that Taiwan accept Beijing’s ‘One China’ policy effectively undermined Hu’s offer; Chen would have been expected to reject such calls.
  • Therefore the call may not have been aimed at Chen and his independence-minded party but may have been aimed at influencing the upcoming Taiwanese elections.
  • The much hailed ‘peace overture’ counts for little thanks to the 2005 Anti-Secession Law, a military reshuffle with cross-strait war in mind, and the estimated 900 missiles aimed at Taiwan.
  • If any preconditions are necessary before talks can commence, foremost among them must be the removal of these missiles.

The proposal of discussions is nothing new in themselves. China has previously offered to resume talks with Taiwan which were frozen since 1999. Like the most recent overture, Beijing has always insisted that discussions could only proceed on the basis of its ‘One China’ policy; China has never veered from its insistence that Taiwan is part of its territory. Discussions in 1999 were halted when then-Taiwan president Lee Teng-hui insisted that bilateral relations be described as 'special state to state' which would imply that Taiwan was a separate country. It is unsurprising therefore that Hu’s call for dialogue and negotiation to solve the cross-strait issue were quickly dismissed by Taipei.

The overture therefore includes nothing of any substantive difference. It solves none of the issues that prevented or led to the collapse of previous discussions. However, the presentation marks a change from previous statements. At the previous party congress in 2002, Jiang Zemin threatened to use force against Taiwan. Hu’s call was notable in so far as he shied away from the warlike rhetoric that often accompanies such occasions and avoided direct references to the use of military force to solve the issue. Instead he stressed Beijing's preference for a peaceful, negotiated settlement to the 58-year-old conflict with Taiwan.

This omission has less to do with any fundamental change in Beijing’s policy and more to do with attempting to influence the upcoming Taiwanese elections which are scheduled for early 2008. China’s leaders are concerned about any repeat of then-Premier Zhu Rongji’s warnings to Taiwan which helped Chen win office in 2000.
The omission of an almost statutory vow to use force to recover the island is also undermined by the Anti Secession Law. Passed in 2005, this elephant in the room as Hu made his ‘peace overture’ authorizes the use of ‘non-peaceful means’ against Taiwan if it moves to a formal declaration of independence. 

White House spokesman Gordon Johndroe was correct that 'President Hu's remarks were a step in the right direction on seeking to reinvigorate a cross-strait dialogue'. Unfortunately Beijing has been making much longer strides down an opposing path. Under Hu, China has continued to pursue a vigorous military build-up, buying and developing submarines and fighter jets aimed at deterring U.S. intervention in the case of a conflict. His speech called for further expansion of the armed forces.

Recently, a high level military reshuffle has been quietly taking place. A common thread through most of the promotions is the manoeuvring of military officers into command positions who have experience in planning for war over Taiwan. General Chen Bingde’s promotion to the post of military chief is seen as a strong signal to Taiwan. He was a former commander of eastern China military forces that are seen as crucial to a conflict with Taiwan.

Most important are the 900-plus missiles the Pentagon estimates are aimed at military and civilian targets on the island. If any preconditions are to be established before talks can resume this would appear to be the most important.

Andrew Legon is a Research Associate with the Asian Programme in the International Security Studies Department at RUSI. He is contactable at andrewl@rusi.org

The views expressed above are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of RUSI.

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