Taiwan under pressure to engage China in political dialogue

Talks on consensus for possible political dialogue follow a warning from Xi Jinping that a resolution to the 'political divide' can't wait forever

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 13 October, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 13 October, 2013, 5:40am

Experts from both sides of the Taiwan Strait have completed two days of talks in Shanghai to seek consensus on the possibility of future political dialogue between the two sides.

Analysts regard the first Cross-Strait Peace Forum as highly significant, following a recent warning by President Xi Jinping that lingering political issues between Beijing and Taipei should not be left to the next generation to resolve.

They also say the presence of several prominent scholars and politicians from Taiwan's opposition Democratic Progressive Party signals a growing desire for the pro-independence camp to participate in such events so it will not be left out in future should official political talks start.

The two-day forum, which began on Friday, was held under the watchful eyes of the government of Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou, whom, analysts say, is eager to make cross-strait rapprochement his legacy after his current term ends in May 2016.

Zhang Zhijun, head of the State Council's Taiwan Affairs Office, said at the opening of the forum on Friday that it was "unrealistic" and "impossible" for the island to deal only with economic issues while ignoring political matters.

"[The mainland] has the necessary patience as well as a strong determination to see cross-strait unification, but that does not mean waiting passively without doing anything," Zhang told Taiwanese media.

Noting that Taiwan and the mainland fall within the one-China framework - Beijing's bottom line it considers non-negotiable - Zhang asked forum participants to find ways for breakthroughs on outstanding issues that have restricted or even prevented cross-strait relations from progressing further.

Zhang's comments came after Xi warned last Sunday that the "political divide that exists between the two sides must reach a final resolution step by step and cannot be passed on from generation to generation".

Xi made the comment during a meeting with Taiwan's former vice-president Vincent Siew Wan-chang on the sidelines of the Asia Pacific Economic Co-operation (Apec) summit. Xi said Beijing was willing to have equal consultations with Taiwan on cross-strait issues within the one-China framework, under which both sides agree there is only one China but interpret that differently.

"Officials in charge of cross-strait affairs may also meet each other to hold discussions," he was quoted as saying by Taiwanese media covering the meeting.

Such political talks remain controversial in democratically run Taiwan, where there is no consensus on how reunification should proceed, if at all. The day after Wang Yu-chi, head of Taiwan's Mainland Affairs Council, met Zhang at the Apec forum, Wang said Taiwan was not ready to engage Beijing in a political dialogue aimed at reunification.

Kao Yu-jen, chairman of Taiwan's 21st Century Foundation - a Taiwanese think-tank that co-hosted the Shanghai event with its mainland counterpart, the National Society of Taiwan Studies - yesterday called for the two sides to respect each other's sovereignty and recognise each other jurisdictions. Some 120 experts from both sides, including scholars and officials, discussed cross-strait political relations, external affairs, security and mutual trust as well as a framework for peace.

However, Taiwanese and mainland participants yesterday differed over whether signing a peace pact should be seen as the prelude to the reunification of Taiwan and the mainland, who were bitter rivals until relations thawed after Ma Ying-jeou became president.

Former DPP vice-premier Wu Rong-yi, who now heads the Taiwan Brains Trust, was one of a dozen DPP politicians and scholars who debated at length with mainland experts on the content of the "one-China" framework.

Hsu Yung-ming, associate professor of political science at Soochow University, said in Taipei that the forum reflected Beijing's eagerness to push for political dialogue with Taipei before Ma's tenure ends in 2016.

"While it remains to be seen whether Ma would go by Beijing's timetable, with nothing to brag about his domestic government performance there is no doubt that Ma wants to make the improvement of cross-strait relations his legacy," Hsu said, referring to Ma's decision to adopt a policy of engaging Beijing after he took office as president in 2008.

Ma's public approval ratings have slipped as low as 9 per cent recently following political feuds within the KMT.