TAIPEI – To maintain the status quo, to attempt to jumpstart final-status talks,
to concentrate on improving economic relations as a forerunner to political
negotiations – these are the primary sticking points regarding the future of the
thorny two-state option.
No, we’re not talking about Israel and the
Palestinian Authority, but the equally complex and precarious relationship
between Taiwan and China.
Filled with a history of mistrust, belligerence
and the specter of violence, today’s increasingly warm ties between Taiwan (the
Republic of China) and mainland China (the People’s Republic of China) are the
result of some creative pragmatism, a desire to avoid confrontation, a
philosophy of deciding not to decide and an acceptance of the gritty realization
that not all partners are created equal. This formula may ultimately provide a
case study for other parts of the world on how two sides which see reality from
two very different points of view have managed to make their relationship
If they were a couple, a marriage counselor might have advised the
following to Taiwan on how to deal with its big, burly husband, mainland China,
lurking in the shadows, eying its every move at establishing a sovereign
country: Forget about your differences, they’re too big to overcome. Instead,
concentrate on common goals and interests, and establish confidence- building
steps to forge trust and reciprocity.
Sound familiar? While since the
Oslo Accords Israel and the Palestinians have only partially succeeded at
following similar advice, due to the totally different circumstances of dynamics
and issues involved, Taiwan has taken it to heart. Whether you deem it putting
blinders on to hide the non-flattering characteristics of the other side, a
short-sighted policy to simply delay inevitable decisions, or maybe just the
result of that great motivator of having a couple dozen missiles aimed at it
from mainland China – the conciliatory path that Taiwan’s President Ma Ying-jeou
has adopted over the last five years has resulted not only in a bustling
cross-straits economic and tourism environment but an increased diplomatic
stature for Taiwan around the world.
At last week’s pomp and
circumstance-filled 102nd National Day celebrations in downtown Taipei, colorful
confetti and streamers filled the sultry air. Invited dignitaries from the 21
countries that have officially recognized Taiwan, and dozens more that Taiwan
now has ties with in the form of representation offices (like Israel), joined
thousands of privileged Taiwanese officials and citizens to view precision
marching bands, spit-and-polished military processions and adorable grade school
In his 15-minute speech, Ma emphasized the increasing
close ties with mainland China and touted the economic achievements that such a
policy has reaped for the country of 23 million people.
“In the past,
Taiwan chose confrontation and isolationism, allowing the Taiwan Strait to rank
alongside the Korean Peninsula as one of the two main East Asian flashpoints,”
he said. “Today... after these five years of effort, the Taiwan Strait today has
become one of the most peaceful waterways and most prosperous passageways in
“In the past five years or so, based on the 1992 Consensus whereby
each side acknowledges the existence of ‘one China’ but maintains its own
interpretation of what that means, the two sides of the strait have signed 19
agreements that have brought about direct sea and air transport links, visits to
Taiwan by tourists from mainland China, mutual judicial assistance, economic
cooperation and other such breakthroughs.”
As Ma spoke, outside the
heavily guarded barricaded area surrounding the celebration in downtown Taipei,
thousands of anti-government protesters gathered to shout slogans and brandish
banners denouncing him.
However, the issues on their agenda were mainly
domestic, involving claims of his collusion with judicial officials in a case
against longtime political rival and legislative speaker Wang
On the issue of the future of cross-strait relations between
Taiwan and mainland China, there appears to be a national consensus to stay the
path forged by the president. And rather than push for independence for Taiwan
or unification with the mainland as protesters focused on Ma’s policy toward China, with some placards lambasting
the recently signed Cross-Strait Agreement on Trade in Services. They say the
agreement, which enables banks and other financial institutions to do business
in each others’s territories, would do untold damage to smaller Taiwanese
companies that can’t compete with larger mainland institutions.
government makes the claim that such economic and business agreements (19 have
been signed since Ma took power in 2008) have made the Taiwanese economy more
competitive and raised the country’s standard of living.
“In 2007, before
establishing the approach of forging closer ties with mainland China, we had
about 300,000 Chinese tourists coming to Taiwan annually. In contrast, last
year, we had 2.5 million Chinese tourists,” said Chu-Chia Lin, deputy minister
of the Mainland Affairs Council, speaking to a group of visiting journalists
brought over by the country’s Foreign Ministry for National Day.
2007, there were no direct flights across the strait – to get from Taiwan to
China meant taking a flight to Hong Kong and spending up to eight hours in
Now, every week we have 670 flights from 10 Taiwanese cities to
54 cities in China,” he said, adding that 5.2 million Taiwanese are now
traveling across the strait every year.
Yet the intense economic activity
exists in a bubble, endangered by the unresolved issue of how Taiwan and China
actually view each other through a political – and military – lens.
say the Republic of China is ‘one China’ and when they say ‘one China,’ they are
referring to the PRC,” said Lin. “So we both came to the agreement that there’s
one China, with different interpretations of what that means. And it’s worked
We do not recognize each other’s sovereignty, but we mutually
recognize each other’s authority to govern. So we both accept each other’s
With one side in essence saying “tomayto” and the other
preferring “tomahto,” Taiwan and China have temporarily bypassed the prickly
issue of which is the “real” China. Of course mainland China holds the political
reins, blocking Taiwan from gaining membership in most international bodies,
including the UN, and muscling countries from establishing formal ties with the
ROC by claiming it is the only real representative of China.
mutual reconciliation policy has nonetheless boosted Taiwan’s diplomatic
standing abroad, and there are signs that mainland China is even softening its
In his speech, Ma pointed out that former vice president Vincent
C. Siew, who was Taiwan’s representative at this month’s Asia- Pacific Economic
Cooperation (APEC) summit in Indonesia, held talks with Xi Jinping, the leader of
“In the meantime, Wang Yu-chi, our minister of our
Mainland Affairs Council, also met during APEC with Zhang Zhijun, minister of
the mainland’s Taiwan Affairs Office.
It’s noteworthy that the two
ministers greeted each other by their official titles. The two sides have
achieved these results by pursuing a basic policy of facing reality, not denying
each other’s authority to govern, and together creating win-win solutions,” said
Among those winning solutions for Taiwan are membership in the World
Trade Organization, pending membership in the International Civil Aviation
Organization, and its pushing for participation in the UN Framework Convention
on Climate Change with the US as its main backer. Over 130 countries have signed
a free visa waiver with Taiwan, up from only 50 five years ago.
seeming scraps in an ocean of continued political isolation are actually
fullcourse meals for Taiwan, according to Dr.
Emmanuel Lincot, chairman
of contemporary China studies and vice dean for international affairs at the
Catholic University of Paris.
“This beginning of integration with China
has presented a good opportunity for Taiwan to emerge on the political and
international stage,” he said. “It’s been a smart move by Ma – integration
And Lincot further stated that Taiwan has not
been – and will not be – the only beneficiary of the cross-strait agreements.
China, he said, may need Taiwan more than Taiwan needs China.
Communist Party in China is in crisis – and the biggest investor in China now is
Taiwan. Almost 30 million jobs in China depend on Taiwan, and there is an
interdependence between the two economies.
“China needs the support of
Taiwan, it seems totally asymmetrical, but it’s real.”
The prospect of
that interdependence resulting in China’s further softening toward a possible
sovereign Taiwan is slim to zero, according to Lincot. And it’s not only because
China would never agree to it.
“Even in Taiwan, it’s not an issue
Even the opposition Democratic Progressive Party doesn’t talk
about independence from China. So the ruling Kuomintang (KMT) has, through its
policies, succeeded in taking independence off the agenda.”
Affairs Council’s Lin supported that view with an ambiguous prediction of how
the Taiwan-China conundrum will play out – basically saying, let’s leave the
“final-status” decisions for another generation to deal with.
eventually have independence or reunification, but at the moment we don’t know,
and the best policy should be to emphasize the status quo,” he
“Maybe in 10, 20 or 30 years, the people will decide on another
direction, but for now we are following the “three Ns” that President Ma has
outlined – no unification, no independence, no use of force.”
that there are missiles aimed at Taiwan, but we believe the probability of
military confrontation with China is almost zero, due to our high level of
communication and ties,” added Lin.
In the face of those missiles,
Taiwan’s negative/ positive policy has enabled the country to survive, thrive
and rise to face another day, with their own interpretation of “one China.”