TOM PLATE WRITES — It hit me hard, one of those awful dreams … then groggily, slowly, sweating, then waking in a start. Dreaming something eerie about Taiwan and China – they had been screaming at each other, all the while yelling at me to shut the heck up and stay the heck out of it. A nightmare.
I know, most normal people have normal neurotic dreams … hounded by wolves, unable to find the way home, sobbing over the missing cat. I have those dreams too but sometimes techno-weirdo psychodramas about cross-strait war exchanges, World War III, global destruction push the lost cat out of the psychic picture. Probably this comes with the well-mined territory of continually writing columns about Asia and China and Taiwan and Hong Kong. This has got dent one’s psyche.
Consider that a PRC Ministry of State Security agent once asked me: ‘Do you really think the American people care enough about Taiwan to go to war over it?’ I braced for a moment, stomach-in-suspension over the implication … because this happened not in a dream but during a dinner conversation. In the course of my work I had gotten to befriend this Han Chinese ‘media and cultural attache’- had grown to like him immensely. He was smart, patriotic, cosmopolitan and – he listened. I wanted to answer very carefully. My reply: “I see what you are getting at, but it would depend on our domestic politics at the time – it might especially depend on who our President was’. This the MSS officer took in with a sense of deep reflection – my candid comment perhaps even worthy of relay back to MSS/HQ.
And add this: what if the U.S. had a uniquely undependable President? One who proposes to pull out of Syria one day and then the next says this will take a long time ? Ditto with US troops in Afghanistan (but both withdrawals many Americans would cheer)? So, why would Americans grab their rifles and jog straight to Taiwan to oppose a cross-strait assault by the PLA? How many would lust for all-out war with China (population 1.4 billion) to preserve Taiwan (population 25 million)? And at a time when we have Mr Un-steady – President Donald J. Trump – as commander-in-chief?
But who knows?
It’s not fair to say that Beijing has not tried diplomacy. In November 2015, in Singapore, Xi Jinping met with Ma Ying-jieu, then the island’s elected leader. The meeting was face-to-face, leader-to-leader – a concession in the deeply protocolled mind of Beijing. Xi’s aim was to add another lane to the cross-strait diplomatic bridge, well aware that the island’s next head would be Tsai Ing-wen, from the feisty opposition party, anything but pro-unification. Tsai was utterly dismissive. While Xi’s symbolic Singapore gesture will not make the short list for the next Nobel Peace Prize, did it not merit more than a rude about-face, given what’s at stake?
First things first: War is the one option that no one should want, whether you’re in Beijing or Taipei, and it must overshadow posturing politics on the island as well as fire-breathing on the mainland. Perhaps the tide of Taiwan opinion is turning toward reality. A pair of major mayoral elections on the island just went against the Tsai party. And Beijing has made it clear that the so-called ‘1992 Consensus’ that emerged from a bilateral negotiation in Hong Kong is still relevant. (Parallel to the 1972 Shanghai Communique between the U.S. and China, its basis is one unitary Chinese sovereignty that takes in Taiwan). In Singapore, in a closed-door meeting, Ma (an underrated leader) underscored to Xi the continuing value of the 1992 Consensus (precise definition remaining in some dispute as it was from the start). But these two mature figures knew better than to try to firm up its meaning at that moment: after all, its proclivity to make provocation or escalation seem juvenile offers major value by itself. In diplomacy, consensual vagueness is close to godliness if it can keep grinding friction from sparking up and triggering armed clash.
The major issue now is one of optics, for Beijing is far more feared than loved. The Xi government would do itself a world of good in making the 1992 Consensus more appealing for Taiwan if its image in Hong Kong were much less unlovable. I accept that this assertion probably seems laughable to many of you; but if there is any magic formula to keeping war from crossing the strait, keeping faith with extant one-country, two-systems deals with secular evangelical favor will aid Beijing exponentially. And while Macao was easy, Hong Kong was never going to be easy. Why don’t Beijing and Taipei start a new ball rolling with long-term, serial strategic negotiations that start with the consensus on the ‘1992 Consensus’ and work to nail down a settlement to take effect in say, 2072? On both sides of the strait you can find ideas that are much sillier than this.
A famous but controversial man of history, still rated at about 70% wise on the mainland, was said to remark back in 1975 to Henry Kissinger, almost off-handedly, that Taiwan unification could wait a hundred years. The metric was hardly meant to be exact but more as a flourish of speech; but this famous man of history knew that China’s needs were many and great, and that good relations with the U.S. were paramount (and, I add, will always be needed). That man was Mao Zedong. Not to rely too heavily on Mao’s numeracy, but add 100 years to that time and we get 2072.
In fact, in 1996, Kissinger asked then President Jiang Zemin about Mao’s putative hundred-year marker: “Is that still true?” Jiang answered: “No, it’s no longer true. That was 24 years ago – now we can only wait 76 more years.” This also adds up to 2072.