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Cross-strait relations nearing 'deep water zone'

As Xi Jinping prepares to take charge in Beijing, Taiwanese experts believe cross-strait talks, while cordial, are nearing a 'deep water zone'

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 18 October, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 18 October, 2012, 7:22am

The frosty wind that blew across the Taiwan Strait for decades has warmed considerably in recent years as both Beijing and Taipei focused on areas of agreement rather than dispute.

Since then-Kuomintang leader Lien Chan's landmark meeting with President Hu Jintao in 2005, the two governments have signed numerous co-operation pacts allowing more people and capital to flow across the strait even as they remain military foes.

But such deals have just scratched the surface of any potential reconciliation. And, as Vice-President Xi Jinping prepares to take the helm in Beijing, Taiwanese experts agree cross-strait talks are nearing a "deep water zone" where more vexing problems will become increasingly unavoidable.

"With the two sides signing 18 co-operation agreements on economic and other non-political issues, they will have to face the thornier political issues," said Wang Kung-yi, a professor at the Institute of International Relations and Strategic Studies at Tamkang University in Taipei.

As they wade into deeper waters, the two sides will have to begin confronting political and ideological rifts that fuelled the Chinese civil war and led Chiang Kai-shek's Kuomintang to flee to Taiwan 62 years ago.

On one side sits Taiwan, a developed capitalist democracy with a population of 23 million. On the other is the mainland, a rapidly developing country of 1.3 billion that has nonetheless shown few signs of abandoning Communist Party rule.

Beijing still regards Taiwan as a breakaway province and says it would be willing to take it back by force if necessary. While Taiwanese overwhelmingly oppose reunification - more than 90 per cent in one recent poll - they have generally supported warming policies advanced by President Ma Ying-jeou.

Ma's defeat of Dr Tsai Ing-wen, of the pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party, in February was widely seen as an indication that the Kuomintang's efforts to bolster ties with the mainland would continue.

Similarly, few expect Xi to veer far from the current path, in which both sides have accepted merely that they belong to "one China". But Beijing remains anxious for reunification and is expected to push for more political dialogue after the upcoming party congress.

Taiwanese authorities, including the National Security Council, the Mainland Affairs Council and the ruling KMT, have been watching the leadership change closely, trying to assess its possible impact on cross-strait relations.

"Based on what has happened over the past four years between us and mainland China, current relations are mutually beneficial," Ma said in June. "So, we do not expect cross-strait ties to have significant changes due to the leadership change."

He placed particular emphasis on Xi's familiarity with cross-strait issues. The Communist Party's leader-in-waiting served 17 years as a local official in nearby Fujian province.

"His understanding of Taiwan is very deep," Ma said.

Hu has also sought to calm any concern that cross-strait relations might sour after he retires as party chief.

During a meeting on the sidelines of the Asia-Pacific Economic Co-operation forum earlier this month, he assured Lien that Beijing's current policies toward Taipei would remain.

"They want a stable transition of power," Lien said.

As more difficult issues arise, analysts said Ma may try to slow down talks. The president now says he does not foresee starting political or peace talks with Beijing anytime in the next few years - something he had proposed early in his tenure.

While the Ma administration seeks to focus on resolving economic and other "pressing" issues, growing economic ties could force other issues to the fore.

More than one million Taiwanese were estimated to be living and working on the mainland. More than 4.14 million mainlanders have visited the island since Taipei started allowing travel in July 2008, adding NT$210 billion (HK$56 billion) to the Taiwanese economy.

The mainland has become Taiwan's top trading partner, accounting for some 40 per cent of its exports last year compared with 15 per cent for the United States. Trade between the two totalled more than US$100 billion last year.

Cross-straight relations expert Tung Li-wen, a professor at Central Police University in Taoyuan, said the incoming leadership was likely to employ a new approach to show that it has consolidated its power.

"Politically, it will use 'Taiwan and the mainland both belong to one country'," Tung said. "Economically, it will continue to offer sweeteners to woo Taiwanese."

Culturally, Beijing would try to replace an "identification with Taiwan" among Taiwanese with an "identification with China", Tung said. It would try to expand ties in the traditional pro-independence hotbed of southern Taiwan and build bridges with pro-independence political groups.

A clue as to how Beijing plans to approach future talks may have been provided by Political Consultative Conference Chairman Jia Qinglin on July 28, when he said the "mainland and Taiwan both belong to the same country, so the relationship between both sides is not a nation-to-nation relationship".

Chen Ming-tong, a former chairman of Taiwan's Mainland Affairs Council, said the remark appeared to be an attempt to push through the "one-China framework" by eliminating the "state-to-state" relationship between the two sides.

So far, Ma has accepted only the "1992 consensus" in which the both sides accepted that only one China exists, while reserving its own interpretation of what that means. For Taipei, it is the Republic of China. For Beijing, it is the People's Republic of China.

"Beijing has tried to take the Republic of China out of its 'one China' equation with Jia's definition," Chen said.

Mainland leaders will have to proceed with caution. A National Chengchi University survey conducted in April found less than 10 per cent favoured unification compared to 22 per cent who preferred independence. Some 62 per cent favoured maintaining the status quo.

Chao Chung-shan, president of Foundation on Asia-Pacific Peace Studies, said Beijing had adopted a more patient approach in recent years after decades of demanding immediate reunification.

"Instead of taking it in a big mouthful, it is swallowing it bit by bit," Chao said.

Lien has proposed using a "building-block approach" to work toward more politically sensitive issues, such as a potential peace deal. He said the two sides can start with peripheral issues and build up to a mutual trust.

In the meantime, academics and think tanks from both sides could hold regular peace forums to brainstorm solutions.

As Beijing tries to bring Taiwan closer to the mainland, many Taiwanese are hoping Beijing will enact political reform to bring it closer to Taipei.

During a visit to Taiwan in July, former US ambassador to China Jon Huntsman said Beijing's next leaders understand that "change is inevitable, but they would not proceed to it quickly for concerns about instability".

Huntsman told his Taiwanese audience that cross-strait discussions would naturally become more difficult and confrontational in the coming years.

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