The first government-to-government meeting between Beijing and Taipei since the brutal civil war ended in 1949 highlights China’s dream of reunification – but analysts say Taiwanese voters will ultimately set the agenda, rather than the mighty Communist Party.
Tuesday’s historic talks in Nanjing – China’s capital when it was under the Kuomintang, or Nationalists, who are now the elected government in Taiwan – brought together the top officials from both sides overseeing cross-straits relations.
Although more symbolic than substantive, they came after decades of hostility following a bitter war which ended 65 years ago with the Nationalists retreating to Taiwan with two million people, leaving Mao Zedong’s victorious Communists to rule the mainland.
Both sides insist they are the rightful rulers of all of China, and Beijing has not renounced the use of force to assert its claim over Taiwan, which it considers a renegade province.
But ties have warmed in more recent years, with Taipei’s tone toward the mainland softening after the 2008 election of the Kuomintang’s Ma Ying-jeou as president, and Beijing holding out economic carrots to try to win Taiwanese hearts and minds.
A key crossroad in the path ahead will be Taiwan’s 2016 presidential elections, an opportunity to retake power for the opposition Democratic Progressive Party, once vociferously in favour of declaring independence.
Such a move would undoubtedly infuriate Beijing, which has the world’s largest military, but the DPP has begun re-evaluating its policy towards China and may think twice before risking the economic repercussions of antagonising its giant neighbour.
For Beijing to impose its will by asserting its superior power would be counterproductive, said Jingdong Yuan, an China expert at the University of Sydney.
“There will be a cost if the mainland applies coercion,” he said. “If we’re talking about unification or some kind of merge or coming together, I think there will be significant resistance from Taiwan.”
Any aggression toward Taiwan might also prompt the US to step in, said Jia Qingguo, a professor of international studies at Peking University.
That puts Taiwanese voters at the start of the chain reaction.
“The factor that is most likely to change the cross-strait relations is a leadership change in Taiwan,” said Jia.
Taiwan ‘buying time’
Beijing has a standing offer of reunification along the lines of the “one country, two systems” model that applies in the former British colony of Hong Kong, which enjoys rights not seen on the mainland.
But Taipei is unlikely to accept any arrangement that affords it inferior status.
As Tuesday’s talks proceeded, a DPP legislator warned against “(selling) Taiwan’s interests to China”, and even some from the Kuomintang called for caution, with one saying Taiwan’s representative “needs to be extremely careful”.
Analysts say both sides are likely to continue pursuing economic and other non-controversial deals from which they both benefit, while anything else could bring them both headaches.
“Taiwan continues in essence to pursue a strategy of buying time, trying to benefit from good relations with China while fending off too much pressure from Beijing to agree to things that Taiwan sees as not its national interest,” said Bonnie Glaser, a senior Asia adviser at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.
As for China, she said, “I think for the time being that they are satisfied with incremental progress, as long as the trend is in the right direction.”
“It may sound sort of uninteresting but I do really project the status quo out probably for the remainder of (Chinese President) Xi Jinping’s term,” she added. “I think there will be more progress in the cross-strait relationship, just as we’re now seeing government officials talk to one another.”
For now, both sides are building confidence and cooperation while avoiding thorny political issues – much the approach adopted during the meeting.
After it, Zhang Zhijun, head of Beijing’s Taiwan Affairs Office, said the two should “never let cross-strait relations again become tormented and never go backward”, according to the official Xinhua news agency.
“We should and certainly can get closer in the future,” he added.