Next in cross-strait dialogue: Taiwan's status?

Frank Ching says both Beijing and Taipei now appear ready to broach political dialogue, with no less than the island's status at stake

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 22 October, 2013, 8:00pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 23 October, 2013, 12:27am

After five years during which he insisted on dealing only with economic issues with the mainland, Taiwan's president, Ma Ying-jeou, is signalling that he is now willing to move towards the next level - a move fraught with grave implications for the island's future.

During a meeting with a US group, the National Committee on American Foreign Policy, Ma said that the establishment of representative offices on both sides of the Taiwan Strait, which is now under consideration, would be of great political significance. "The nature of the cross-strait representative offices is not economic," he said. "It's political. The offices would have more political significance than previous cross-strait agreements."

Ma's words can be seen as a response to remarks by President Xi Jinping when he met the Taiwanese leader's representative, former vice-president Vincent Siew Wan-chang, on the margins of the Apec leaders' meeting in Bali.

"The issue of political disagreements that exist between the two sides must reach a final resolution, step by step," Xi said. "These issues cannot be passed on from generation to generation." Those words indicated the mainland's impatience to start moving towards the long-term goal of reunification.

Ma had previously described representative offices as "neutral", not political. In a National Day address, he referred to their establishment as taking "cross-strait co-operation to a new level, and revitalis[ing] Chinese society". In other words, the way towards official political dialogue is now open.

"Cross-strait relations are not international relations," he asserted, pointedly distancing himself from the position taken by his predecessors Lee Teng-hui and Chen Shui-bian.

Since 2008, China has tacitly accepted Ma's proposal of a diplomatic truce and has not wrested from Taiwan any of the 23 countries with which the island still maintains diplomatic relations.

Moreover, Taiwan has gained international space, being able to take part in the annual meetings of the World Health Assembly and, last month, participating in the International Civil Aviation Organisation assembly for the first time in 42 years.

Of course, Ma knows that, in both instances, Taiwan's ability to participate was not because of international support but purely because of Beijing's approval. And, at any time, Beijing can change its mind and such invitations to Taiwan will be immediately withdrawn.

Also at China's sufferance, Taiwan in July signed an economic co-operation agreement with New Zealand and is close to a similar deal with Singapore.

Such agreements, in a sense, are even more important to Taiwan than participation in international bodies. All of Taiwan's major trading partners are negotiating free trade agreements with each other and the island won't survive unless it, too, is part of the growing web of such pacts linking East Asian nations. Importantly, such agreements, once signed, cannot be abrogated simply because the mainland is unhappy with Taiwan.

Frank Ching is a Hong Kong-based writer and commentator. Follow him on Twitter: @FrankChing1