Getting to a 'yes'

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 05 May, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 05 May, 2010, 12:00am

When the United States established diplomatic relations with the People's Republic in 1979, the first thing Beijing did was to broadcast an emotional message to its 'dear compatriots' in Taiwan urging 'early reunification of the motherland'. The emphasis was on the long separation between the two sides and the need for national unity. 'If we do not quickly set about ending this disunity so that our motherland is reunified at an early date, how can we answer our ancestors and explain to our descendants?' it asked plaintively. The response of Taiwan's then-president, Chiang Ching-kuo, was straightforward. It was three 'nos': no contact, no compromise, no negotiations.

Over the years since then, Beijing has continued its efforts, emphasising its own rapidly rising world status. After it gained the right to host the Olympic Games, it announced that the torch relay would pass through Taiwan, which would have allowed the island a measure of international status.

By then, total separation had long since ended and trade between the two sides was flourishing. However, the Chen Shui-bian government insisted that Beijing treat the Taiwan portion of the relay as international rather than domestic. In the end, the relay bypassed Taiwan.

On Friday, China crossed another milestone with the opening of the half-year, multibillion-dollar World Expo in Shanghai - the first world's fair held in a developing country. And Beijing was at it again, bidding for closer relations with Taiwan while showcasing the dazzling progress it has made.

President Hu Jintao met a roomful of dignitaries from Taiwan and told them that 'Shanghai's hosting of the World Expo is a matter of pride for all Chinese people, including those across the Taiwan Strait'. Chinese people on both sides of the strait share the responsibility of ending the history of mutual hostility and realising the nation's great renaissance, he said.

The days of the 'three nos' are truly over. Today there is daily contact between the two sides. There are also negotiations, with an economic co-operation framework agreement expected to be signed within weeks. There have also been some compromises. Taiwan no longer insists it is the legitimate government of all China. In fact, Taiwan has settled for such demeaning names as 'Chinese Taipei' in order to be allowed to join international organisations. However, the political reunification that Beijing seeks is still elusive. While Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou has vastly improved relations between the two sides, he has also said he will not engage in political negotiations in his first term, which ends in 2012. He has been ambiguous about what might happen if he wins re-election.

Beijing has been champing at the bit, implying it is time Ma gave some political ground since it has made so many concessions for him. These concessions include allowing Taiwan to participate as an observer at the World Health Assembly, accepting a diplomatic truce with Taiwan and being accommodating in their economic negotiations.

However, while Ma's cross-strait policy is supported domestically, he has quite low popular support within Taiwan. The ruling Kuomintang lost five of last year's six elections for mayors and county magistrates, and five by-elections for legislators.

It is by no means certain that Ma will be re-elected. If he agrees to political negotiations with Beijing, it would be signing his own political death warrant. One hopes Beijing realises this and will allow him some breathing space. Certainly, it would not be in its interests if the pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party returned to power.

From that standpoint, Ma's political weakness is actually a good thing. It will deter Beijing from putting pressure on him to hold political talks and allow Ma some room to manoeuvre while treading the narrow line between Taiwanese independence and the nebulous concept of 'one China'. In this, Ma's weakness may be his strength.

Frank Ching is a Hong Kong-based writer and commentator