Different era and mood for 'little dragons' talks

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 20 April, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 20 April, 2010, 12:00am

Eight years ago, talks on a civil aviation agreement between Hong Kong and Taiwan once became deadlocked when the two sides disputed whether government officials should sit in on the negotiations. At that time, Hong Kong was still an important transit hub for air passengers between the mainland and Taiwan.

But now, with the hostile political atmosphere gone, a friendly talk is expected when the two places launch their new round of civil aviation negotiations by June through a new communication channel. Yet with direct flights across the Taiwan Strait now, Hong Kong's role as a middleman is fading.

Despite frequent exchanges at civil level, the official relationship between the two 'little dragons' in Asia is often complex, following the rises and falls in cross-strait ties. In a breakthrough in Hong Kong-Taiwan links, the local Hong Kong-Taiwan Economic and Cultural Co-operation and Promotion Council (ECCPC) was set up this month, and will be a representative body in talks with its Taiwanese counterpart, the Taiwan-Hong Kong Economic and Cultural Co-operation Council (ECCC), which will be formally launched in the middle of May.

'I won't be overoptimistic to say we don't have to worry at all. Nothing is easy. If we do it, we have a chance to succeed, but if we don't, we won't ever succeed,' said David Lie Tai-chong, a vice-chairman of the ECCPC who also heads its Business Co-operation Committee.

The newly created platform is largely modelled on the existing mechanism for mainland-Taiwan talks, often known as the 'white glove' policy. The two councils, both with participation by high-ranking ministers, are incorporated as legal entities but will be authorised by the two governments to sign pacts.

Lie said he expected some trial and error. 'My goal for my two-year term as the Business Co-operation Committee chairman is to build a foundation for collaborations.'

Taiwan is Hong Kong's fourth largest trading partner. As a businessman with extensive networks both on the mainland and in Taiwan, Lie said his committee would have to identify the industries in which the two places would gain advantages if they co-operated. 'The relationship between Hong Kong and Taiwan is not so much about politics. Instead, we should seek to do things which are mutually beneficial.'

Lie, a local delegate to the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference, said Hong Kong should differentiate itself from mainland cities when exploring co-operation opportunities across the Taiwan Strait.

'We should make use of our edge. For example, there are about 50 Taiwan-based companies listed in Hong Kong. Back in Taiwan, companies get more economic and political recognition if they are listed in Hong Kong rather than the mainland.'

But the working agenda of the two sides appears different. Exchanges of information relating to infectious disease control and public health, further relaxation of visa requirements for travellers and promotion of cultural exchanges are high on the agenda of the Taiwanese side, while the Hong Kong government has expressed keen interest in seeking mutual avoidance of double taxation and on collaboration between the two financial markets.

A noticeable difference in the structure of the council is that Taiwan's ECCC has two committees, one on cultural and one on economic co-operation, while Hong Kong's ECCPC has only the business committee chaired by Lie.

The contrast is exemplified by the views of Susie Chiang Su-hui, Taiwan's former cultural envoy in Hong Kong. Chiang, who now chairs both the Taiwan Business Association in Hong Kong and the CS Culture Foundation, said: 'Trade between Hong Kong and Taiwan has already been booming, even before the two councils start operation.

'Taiwan businessmen are already very familiar with Hong Kong. With the signing of ECFA [the Economic Co-operation Framework Agreement, a semi-free trade pact to be signed between the mainland and Taiwan] and the maturing trade platforms between the mainland and Taiwan, Hong Kong will only lag behind in terms of trade with Taiwan. It is impossible for the two new councils to further push forward businesses,' said Chiang, who was the founding director of the Kwang Hwa Information and Cultural Centre - Taiwan's quasi-official information office in Hong Kong.

'After all, Hong Kong is a city which regards business more highly than culture ... But I think what is more important for the new channel is to promote cultural exchanges, not economic exchanges.'

As a former Taiwan official, Chiang hopes that the two governments will take off their 'white gloves' and talk with each other directly on an official platform.

'Undoubtedly, Hong Kong's role as an economic bridge between the mainland and Taiwan will fade as direct cross-strait communication has already started. But there are things which Hong Kong can do better than mainland cities. The city can play a bigger role in promoting understanding between people across the strait.'