Thaw in relations

Taiwan must have realised by now that it is no match to the mighty China and therefore making peace with it is the best option.

Amidst China’s territorial assertiveness that has strained its ties with its neighbours, there seems to be a thaw in its relations with Taiwan, which Beijing considers its renegade province, and continues to threaten to integrate the island with the mainland China, if need be, by use of force. The government-to-government meeting by ranking officials between Beijing and Taipei on February 11 in Beijing, the first since the brutal civil war ended in 1949, signals Beijing’s dream of possible unification by peaceful means.

It also raised the prospect of the possibility of holding a presidential summit, though there could be no indication whether or when such a top level meeting can take place. But the optimistic view is that during Taiwan’s minister for mainland affairs Wang Yu-chi’s meeting with his Chinese counterpart Zhang Zhijun in Nanjing, the possibility of holding a meeting between President Ma Yin-jeou and China’s President Xi Jinping was discussed. Taipei holds the view that such a meeting can be held at an appropriate setting and under appropriate conditions.

Beijing is to host the next Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum’s annual top-level meeting in October and that occasion could provide the appropriate setting. Wang, however, was cautious in clarifying that there could be several steps to make a summit meeting possible and hoped that each step will be a steady one.Until recently, it was inconceivable in Taiwan even to think that a summit would be possible. Beijing has been objecting Taiwan’s representation at the presidential level at the APEC summit and therefore Ma has kept away from it and had to send an economic official or a retired politician on his behalf. Now with the improvement of relations across the Taiwan Strait, for Ma to travel to Beijing in October is no longer inconceivable. 

The historic talks in Nanjing, China’s capital under the Kuomintang or Nationalists before their defeat and fleeing to Taiwan, now the elected government, was actually more symbolic than substantive. The meeting came after decades of hostility following a bitter war that ended 65 years ago with the Nationalists retreating to Taiwan with two million people, thereby leaving Mao Zedong’s victorious Communists to rule the mainland.

 Though both claim that they are the rightful rulers of all of China, Taiwan must have realised by now that it is no match to the mighty China and therefore making peace with it is the best option. On its part, China has not changed its stated position that Taiwan is a renegade province and has not renounced the use of force to assert its claims over Taiwan. 

Since being elected to power in 2008, Ma adopted a conciliatory approach towards China and pushed through a number of cooperative policies. In order to deepen economic ties, Taiwan entered into a free trade agreement. Beijing is also trying to woo Taiwan by offering economic carrots to win over the Taiwanese people. Though most Taiwanese would prefer to retain functional independence, it is not sure if Ma’s efforts to forge a closer political tie with Beijing would find many favours among the Taiwanese people. Ma has taken the route of economic integration with the mainland China to achieve his political end. 

Due elections

The presidential elections in Taiwan will be due in 2016. If the people do not endorse Ma’s policy approach towards China, the opposition Democratic Progressive Party which is in favour of declaring independence may capture power. In such a situation, the DPP will not only infuriate Beijing but will also risk economic repercussions if it antagonises its giant neighbour. Though Beijing has one of the world’s largest military, if it really decides to use force to integrate Taiwan to the mainland should the DPP declares independence after coming to power in 2016, Beijing’s measures would be counterproductive. If China uses military power against Taiwan, the US bound by the Taiwan Relations Act would promptly intervene and if that happens, the Taiwanese people will feel emboldened to fight for their democratic rights along with the US forces. Such a situation would cause instability in East Asia.

However, the first move of what is seen a thaw in cross-strait relations following the high-level meeting, is a dramatic change from Taiwan’s earlier position of “no contact, no compromise and no negotiation” under the ‘secessionist’ (alleged by China) policies of former presidents Lee Teng-hui and Chen Shui-bian. After assuming power, Ma changed the earlier policy by accepting the idea of “one China, different interpretations”, which has been Beijing’s standing offer of reunification along the lines of the “one country, two systems” model that applies in the former British colony of Hong Kong, which enjoys rights not available to the people of the mainland. But will Taiwan be willing to accept an arrangement that would make it seen as inferior? That seems unlikely.

Under the circumstance, it will serve the interests of both if they concentrate only on pursuing economic and other non-controversial deals from which both parties can reap benefit. If political issues are allowed to intervene in bilateral dealings, things would run risk of getting messy. The DPP has already warned the Ma government of “selling Taiwan’s interests to China” and would not remain idle if the perception inside Taiwan grows that the people’s freedom is being mortgaged or compromised in striking a political deal with Beijing. Both China and Taiwan are trading delicate paths. While Taiwan will continue the policy of buying more time and continue to benefit from its economic engagement with mainland China while not losing its political identity, China would be satisfied with incremental progress in its perceived right direction and hoping to achieve its long term goal by pursuing its salami-slicing policy.

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