Walk, don't run

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 07 January, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 07 January, 2009, 12:00am

President Hu Jintao marked the 30th anniversary of Beijing's first overture to Taiwan with a major speech that offered a comprehensive economic co-operation agreement as well as military contacts and a possible peace deal 'prior to national unification'. The sweeping proposals were immediately welcomed by Taiwan's ruling party, the Kuomintang.

The original overture on January 1, 1979, called for the establishment of 'three links' - direct transport, mail and trade - which were finally realised late last year. While everyone is happy to see the decline in tension across the Taiwan Strait that marked Chen Shui-bian's eight years in power, both Beijing and Taipei should pause and reflect before pushing any further to establish yet closer ties.

It can be argued that taking 30 years to realise the 'three links' is not really a breathtaking pace, but much has already happened in the eight months since Ma Ying-jeou was inaugurated as Taiwanese president. Talks between the two sides, suspended for nine years, resumed in June, weeks after Mr Ma took office.

Weekend charter flights began in July. The mainland's highest level official visited Taiwan in November and direct shipping, air transport and postal services were launched in mid-December.

Two pandas, gifts from the mainland rejected by the Chen administration, arrived in Taiwan on December 23. The sweeping proposals from Mr Hu came eight days later.

Yet, many people in Taiwan cannot adjust to such changes so quickly. This was reflected in the startling results of a public opinion survey published on January 1 by CommonWealth magazine, which cannot be considered pro-independence.

In the survey, conducted annually, 23.5 per cent said Taiwan should immediately or eventually achieve independence while only 6.5 per cent said they wanted unification with the mainland, either now or in the future.

To be sure, even among the pro-independence respondents, 18.6 per cent said they wanted peaceful relations with mainland China, but 4.9 per cent said they wanted independence soon, no matter what Beijing's attitude was. This means that eight months of improved cross-strait relations have actually boosted pro-independence sentiment, suggesting events are moving more rapidly than many people are comfortable with, resulting in feelings of fear and uncertainty.

What remains true is that a solid majority of Taiwan's inhabitants, 57.8 per cent, want to maintain the status quo. That is to say, they do not want either de jure independence for Taiwan - the island already has de facto independence - or political unification with the mainland.

Leaders in Beijing and Taipei should not dismiss the results; they should take them as a warning that too much haste can be counterproductive. For the time being, they should only seek to improve the state of the economy. Let the economic interdependence between the island and the mainland gradually be absorbed by the Taiwanese, rather than rub their faces in it.

Wise leaders in Beijing should realise that winning over the hearts and minds of Taiwanese can only be a gradual process. They can take unilateral action, such as reducing the number of missiles aimed at Taiwan. This will certainly be appreciated. Similarly, allowing the island more international space will be welcomed but, again, this should be done while taking care to maintain Taiwan's dignity - there is no need to use the word 'sovereignty'. Constant reiteration of the goal of eventual unification can also be unsettling and should be toned down.

One encouraging sign is the emergence of a new term - a collaboration mechanism 'with special cross-strait characteristics' - to describe an economic agreement between the two sides. Hopefully, this will be a way around disputes as to whether such an agreement is 'domestic' or 'international'.

Such flexibility is vital if relations are to continue to develop, at a pace which is slow enough not to rock the boat.

Frank Ching is a Hong Kong-based writer and commentator