Is a China-Taiwan Peace Deal in the Cards?

Not quite yet. But an interim agreement looks increasingly likely between the once-hostile neighbors.

In 1995 and 1996, as China fired ballistic missiles across the Taiwan Strait, U.S. analysts joked that Beijing's military capabilities were so limited that an invasion would require a "million-man swim." An ambitious military modernization program has greatly improved Chinese military capabilities since then, but an even more remarkable shift has taken place in political relations with Taiwan over the last year.

Since Ma Ying-jeou's inauguration as president of Taiwan in May 2008, mainland China and Taiwan have established direct shipping, air transport, and postal links; opened Taiwan to mainland tourists; and increased financial cooperation. The two sides are now negotiating a far-reaching economic cooperation agreement. This new atmosphere has greatly reduced the chances of a cross-strait confrontation that might draw the United States and China into a military conflict. Indeed, China and Taiwan recently announced plans for 100 swimmers to swim five miles from the Chinese city of Xiamen to the Taiwan-controlled island of Jinmen. The offshore islands -- once a Cold War flashpoint -- have become a symbol of the dramatic improvement in cross-strait relations.

Leaders on both sides have expressed interest in consolidating the improved relationship by negotiating a peace agreement. The recent warming trend suggests that it is now worth thinking seriously about how a peace agreement might work and what implications it might have for the United States.

To start: Realistically, at what point could a peace agreement bridge the divide between Beijing and Taipei?

Despite improved relations, political conditions are not ripe for a permanent resolution of Taiwan's status. China still regards Taiwan as part of its territory and seeks unification, preferably achieved through peaceful means (though Beijing has refused to renounce the use of force). Taiwan's constitution retains formal links to mainland China, but the island enjoys de facto sovereignty and some political forces seek total independence.

Public opinion polls in Taiwan show that 75 to 80 percent of people on the island favor preservation of the status quo, at least for now. Beijing appears to have recognized this reality; President Hu Jintao's "eight points" speech at the end of 2008 implicitly acknowledged that an extended period of time would be needed before unification could be achieved. For now, China aims to deter Taiwanese independence while creating conditions of "peaceful development" via strengthened cross-strait economic, political, and social ties.

Although a permanent resolution of Taiwan's status remains a long-term proposition, an interim peace agreement -- trading a Taiwanese commitment not to move toward independence for a Chinese commitment not to use force -- seems increasingly possible. Taiwan's leaders have been interested in such an agreement for several years. Both presidential candidates called for negotiation of a peace agreement during the 2008 campaign. Beijing first endorsed the idea in 2005, and Chinese leaders have incorporated the call to "end the state of hostilities and negotiate a peace agreement" in their major statements on Taiwan since 2007.

This spring, Taiwan's Ma announced that he would not negotiate a peace agreement during his first term, but might pursue negotiations if elected to a second term in March 2012 (thereby guaranteeing that a peace agreement will be a major issue in Taiwan's next presidential election).  This leaves a window of opportunity for negotiations before Hu steps down from his formal leadership positions that October. Even if the two sides are unable to reach a deal then, Hu may seek to consolidate his political legacy by establishing principles that would guide future negotiations with Taiwan.

Although formal negotiations are not on the immediate horizon, both sides have conducted internal research on what a cross-strait peace agreement might look like and have begun to discuss the issue in cross-strait academic meetings.

What political and policy factors might negotiators discuss?

Skeptics might argue that an agreement would merely paper over fundamental differences and be abandoned quickly if circumstances changed.  Elections could bring to power pro-independence Taiwanese leaders who see the compromises underpinning a peace agreement as illegitimate.  Or the military balance could tip so much that future Chinese leaders come to view an agreement as an intolerable obstacle to unification.  These are serious issues, but a properly crafted peace agreement can be effective and durable.

Both sides can take steps to enhance the credibility of their commitment to a peace agreement.  The Ma administration could consult closely with opposition leaders while negotiating, and ask the legislature to pass enabling laws or use a referendum to ratify the deal.  These steps would help legitimate the agreement. China, too, has incentives to be generous in negotiations to increase public support for a deal in Taiwan and to make it hard for future Taiwanese leaders -- regardless of political orientation -- to walk away from an agreement.

Beijing, in turn, could signal its long-term commitment by explicitly staking its international reputation on adherence to a peace agreement, by adopting robust military confidence-building measures (CBMs) that demonstrate its commitment to peaceful resolution, and by adapting its military training and modernization programs in ways that reduce its ability to successfully invade Taiwan.  For example, China could consciously refrain from developing the amphibious sealift capability needed for an invasion.

A peace agreement that generates concrete and lasting benefits for both sides would be more durable.  A stable political relationship would support deeper economic integration and generate significant economic gains for actors on both sides.  A peace agreement could produce greater certainty about the security environment and include CBMs that reduce military threats.  Moreover, the political, economic, and security benefits flowing from an agreement would likely increase over time, expanding political support and potentially allowing even deeper cooperation.

Identity is a critical issue in cross-strait relations, with Beijing insisting that people on Taiwan are Chinese and Taiwan independence advocates arguing for their distinct and separate identity.  A peace agreement might help address this issue through the exchange of "identity goods," measures that allow one side the chance to influence the other side's perception of national identity. Expanded media, educational, and people-to-people exchanges could give Beijing a chance to persuade people on Taiwan about the benefits of unification, and allow Taiwan a chance to press for greater openness and political changes in China that would make unification more attractive.

Overcoming the obstacles to an agreement will require leaders in both countries to invest significant political capital. But such direct involvement will also make an agreement more likely to last. A leader who opens himself to domestic criticism by making the difficult compromises necessary to reach a peace agreement will want the deal to succeed. Both leaders would have a strong personal stake in the agreement, particularly if it is viewed as a key part of their legacy.

And what about the role of the United States in any agreement? America has a strong interest in good cross-strait relations, but it should not seek to play the role of mediator.

An active role in negotiations would be a major departure from long-standing U.S. policy and is unlikely to be welcomed by China and Taiwan. Mediation efforts would violate U.S. assurances to Taiwan, would be controversial in terms of U.S. domestic politics, and could result in the two sides blaming the United States for the failure of negotiations or the shortcomings of an agreement. Washington would be best served by supporting constructive cross-strait dialogue rather than taking an active role in negotiations.

The United States will naturally be deeply concerned about the effectiveness of military CBMs, the likely durability of an agreement, and the military situation if an agreement broke down. And a cross-strait peace agreement raises challenging policy questions in the United States. Would an agreement make eventual unification more likely?  If so, is Washington comfortable with that outcome?   Would a peace agreement allow deeper U.S.-China cooperation by addressing the most contentious issue in bilateral relations, or will China's rise exacerbate existing tensions even if Taiwan is no longer a major concern? Would America's allies regard an agreement favorably, or would they grow suspicious that growing Chinese power would make the United States less willing to honor its commitments?

A China-Taiwan peace agreement is not imminent, but both sides have already begun to position themselves for negotiations. Significant progress toward an agreement would force Washington to address difficult questions that U.S. policymakers have often preferred to ignore or defer.  Both sides have already begun to press Washington for its views, and U.S. policymakers need to consider how to respond.

Sam Yeh/AFP/Getty Images


Playing the Jesus Card

Why is Netanyahu courting Christian fundamentalists?

Benjamin Netanyahu has a problem. The Obama administration is insisting on a settlements freeze, and the Israeli prime minister, who is resisting such demands, is not getting the support he might have expected from the U.S. pro-Israel community. Usually, when an American President makes any sort of demand on Jerusalem, pro-Israel (primarily Jewish) organizations compel Congress to pressure the president to cease and desist. It usually works. But not this time.

So what's an Israeli leader to do? Netanyahu is resurrecting a tried and true strategy: Call on Christian fundamentalists -- who see maintaining Israel's occupation as paramount -- to galvanize popular pressure against Obama. But just like the last time he played this trick, the tactic is unlikely to work magic for Bibi anytime soon.

For one thing, it's clear that Netanyahu is on shaky ground with the mainstream pro-Israel lobby on settlements. At the president's meeting with Jewish leaders at the White House on July 13, Obama heard virtually no criticism of his policy on settlements. Even the more conservative Jewish groups held their tongues. The only exception came when one participant urged the president not to change his policy but to keep his differences with Israel private, such that there would be "no daylight" visible between Israeli and American positions. Obama responded that past administrations did not have much success with that approach. "For eight years, there was no light between the United States and Israel, and nothing got accomplished," he said.

There are numerous reasons why the Jewish community is not rushing to Netanyahu's defense. First, there has never been much support in the United States for West Bank settlements. AIPAC, the pro-Israel lobby, has never taken a stand favoring settlements nor have most of the other mainstream pro-Israel organizations. The up-and-coming pro-Israel, pro-peace organizations like J Street and my employer, the Israel Policy Forum, oppose settlements and fully support the president's position.

On top of that, Netanyahu has never been a popular figure in the American Jewish community. His last tenure as prime minister was a failure; he was turned out of office in near-record time. Yet even in this brief stint, he managed to antagonize the United States. Remember, he came to office less than a year after the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, and moved quickly to undo the peace process. Not surprisingly, that led to a swift deterioration in relations between Netanyahu and then President Bill Clinton, who had cherished his relationship both with Rabin and the Oslo peace process.

Sensing the frost, and knowing that getting in Clinton's good graces would require endorsing Oslo, Netanyahu turned to the Republicans and to the Christian Zionists for support. There was nothing subtle about Netanyahu's embrace of the right. In fact, during the Monica Lewinsky crisis -- when he clearly believed Clinton was done for -- the media carried reports about Netanyahu joking with House Speaker Newt Gingrich over some of the more salacious details of the affair.

At about the same time that Netanyahu started cozying up to right-wing Republicans, the Israeli government intensified its efforts to court so-called Christian Zionists. These are fundamentalist Christians whose theology dictates unwavering support for the state of Israel.

Unlike most pro-Israel Jews, Christian Zionists emphatically support Israeli settlements and oppose the two-state solution. By no means liberal, they do not raise questions about Israel's treatment of Palestinians. They are, quite simply, Netanyahu's natural constituency -- far more natural than the Jewish community, which tends to be too dovish for Bibi's taste.

So, sure enough, Netanyahu was the man of the hour at this week's Christians United For Israel (CUFI) conference in Washington. The organization's founder, Pastor John Hagee, addressed Netanyahu -- who was in Israel -- by satellite, telling him that 50 million Christians support "Israel's sovereign right to grow and develop the settlements of Israel as you see fit and not yield to the pressure of the United States government."

Netanyahu expressed his gratitude. "Today millions of Christians stand with Israel because they stand for freedom, millions of Christians stand with Israel because they stand for truth, millions of Christians stand for Israel because they want to see genuine peace in the Holy Land," he said. The triumvirate of Netanyahu, Hagee, and Israeli Tourism Minister Stas Misezhnikov now plan to cement their alliance by conference call every three months.

It has all the makings of a zero sum game: Netanyahu and other right-wing Israelis hope that the support they gain from the Christian right can help make up for what they have lost among American liberals over the past several years.

It won't. Christian Zionists of the CUFI variety are hardcore Republicans. Their votes are never up for grabs in elections because they are owned by the GOP -- and not because of Israel. Right-wing Christians, including Christian Zionists, support Republicans for the party's stance on abortion, gays, taxes and a host of other conservative issues. Neither the Democrats (who will never get their votes or their campaign contributions) nor the Republicans (who will always get both) have any need to court them. So, loud and organized as they are, this subset of the American right is not a major political player.

On the Israel issue, the only domestic constituency that matters is the Jewish community and, thus far, it is supporting Obama -- not Netanyahu -- on the settlements issue and the peace process. That should be no surprise, given that most Jews are Democrats and 78 percent of them voted for Obama over McCain.

So long as that support holds, Obama has a free hand on Arab-Israeli affairs. And it will hold as long as the president's popularity remains high. If Obama's support declines --whether due to a failure on healthcare or anything else -- some of his Jewish support will erode too. And that would give Netanyahu the opening he wants to enlist the Jewish community in his effort to stop Obama's pressure on Israel.

In any case, it will be the Jews who make the difference, not Netanyahu's irrelevant fundamentalist Christian allies. Like most card tricks, this one is pretty easy to crack.