Why the ‘1992 Consensus’ matters

By David Kan Ting, Special to The China Post

Several decades down the road, historians may regard Taiwan’s 2012 election as a referendum on an all-important yet contentious issue — the “1992 Consensus” — a catchword that either threatens to tear this nation apart or promises to pull it together, because it concerns national identity. It is contentious because the essence of the catchword is about the “one China” principle, however vague and ambiguous it may sound. To the island’s pro-independence politicians like Tsai Ing-wen, the presidential candidate of the opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), “one China” is a byword for “annexation” or “ultimate unification” which is anathema to the party’s pro-independence platform. But to her rival Ma Ying-jeou of the ruling Kuomintang (KIMT), “one China” is engraved in the Constitution. Moreover, Ma must support this principle because it is the very basis of cross-strait dialogue that has led to the blossoming of economic and cultural ties which this island has not seen since 1949. As the election is entering its last stage and final week, the issue of the “1992 Consensus” is looming as a defining factor in a race in which Tsai and Ma, the two major contenders, are neck-and-neck, while the third candidate, James Soong of the People First Party, is trailing behind as an also-ran. But Soong could be an effective spoiler to Ma just as Ralph Nader was to Al Gore in the 2000 U.S. general election.

Now the “1992 Consensus” is eclipsing other campaign issues because more and more voters are sensing the consequences of denying it. To put it in a nutshell for starters, the consensus was a tacit, nebulous agreement reached 20 years ago between quasi-official delegates from Beijing and Taipei under which both sides recognized the principle of “one China” without agreeing on the definition of the sensitive word. Although it was in fact an agreement to disagree, it nevertheless has become the sine qua non for any cross-strait dialogue to begin in the first place. Rejection of this consensus, as former President Lee Teng-hui did in 1999 and his successor Chen Shui-bian did after 2000, had resulted in a deep freeze in cross-strait ties until 2008 when Ma Ying-jeou won a landslide victory with a promise to improve ties with Beijing by resuming cross-strait dialogue on the basis of the “1992 Consensus.” Since then, cross-strait relations have begun to flourish and many landmark agreements have been inked, including the historic economic cooperation framework agreement (ECFA) that benefits Taiwan with tariffs reduction in the face of steep competition from the ASEAN free trade bloc with which China associates. Taiwan has also thrown its doors open to mainland tourists and students, bringing in a period of unprecedented cultural interchange that enhances goodwill and mutual understanding.