Historic China-Taiwan talks start long road to closer ties
Agence France-Presse in Taipei, Taiwan
China and Taiwan are gearing up for their first government-to-government meeting in more than six decades Tuesday -- but analysts say renewed political ties between the former bitter rivals may still be a long way off.
The Taiwanese government’s Wang Yu-chi, who oversees the island’s China policy, is scheduled to fly to the mainland on February 11 to meet his counterpart Zhang Zhijun, China’s Taiwan Affairs Office chief, for talks set to last until February 14.
The meeting in Nanjing, in China’s eastern Jiangsu province, is the fruit of years of efforts to normalise relations and marks the first official contact between sitting governments since the pair’s acrimonious split in 1949.
That year, two million supporters of the nationalist leader Chiang Kai-shek fled to Taiwan--officially known as Republic of China--after losing a civil war to Mao Zedong’s Communists.
Ever since, the island and the mainland have been governed separately, both claiming to be the true government of China, only re-establishing contact in the 1990s through quasi-official organisations.
When the much-anticipated visit was announced at a January press conference, Taiwan’s Wang said it had “crucial implications for further institutionalisation of the ties between the two sides of the Straits”.
“It has a symbolic meaning. It introduces more confidence and trust between the two sides,” Jia Qingguo, an international studies professor at Peking University said of the meeting, adding that it could bring about modest improvements in cooperation.
While Taiwan is likely to focus on reaping practical outcomes from the visit, such as securing economic benefits or security assurances, Jia said, China has more of an eye toward long-term integration of the island.
Beijing views Taiwan as a rebel region awaiting reunification with the mainland, and has repeatedly refused to renounce the possibility of using force to take back the island if necessary.
“From the mainland perspective, (China) probably attaches more importance to accelerating the process of economic integration, and also with a view to political unification in the long run,” Jia said.
Taiwan wants to use the visit to raise issues including proposed liaison offices, bilateral efforts on regional economic integration and better healthcare for Taiwanese students studying on the mainland.
Decades of stalemate
The political thaw of a decades-long stalemate comes after the two sides have made cautious steps towards economic reconciliation in recent years.
Taiwanese president Ma Ying-jeou of the Beijing-friendly Kuomintang party came to power in 2008, presiding over a marked softening in tone from Taipei towards its giant neighbour and reinstating direct flights between the two sides.
In June 2010, Taiwan and China signed the landmark Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement, a pact widely characterised as the boldest step yet towards reconciliation.
Yet despite the much-touted detente, Taipei and Beijing have still shunned all official contact, and negotiations since 2008 when Ma came to power have been carried out through proxies.
While these proxies -- the quasi-official Straits Exchange Foundation (SEF) representing Taiwan, and the Association for Relations Across the Taiwan Straits (ARATS), for China -- have secured economic progress, they lacked the power to broach deeper-held differences.
Analysts say that only government-level officials can settle the crux of a lingering sovereignty dispute that sees each side claiming to be the sole legitimate government of China.
“The two government units will be authorised to handle policy-oriented affairs, while SEF and ARATS could be somewhat weakened in their functions,” George Tsai, a political science professor at Taipei’s Chinese Culture University told AFP.
Analysts will be watching the meeting closely to see if it could pave the way for talks between Ma and his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping -- although chances of that happening any time soon are slim.
“Such [a] proposal could be dictated by the outcome of the coming meeting,” Tsai said.
“Both sides are crossing the river by feeling for stones,” he said, quoting a Chinese proverb to describe the cautious path Taipei and Beijing are following in the hope of greater progress.