Foreign affairs: Taiwan’s ‘one-state’ solution

Despite China’s large footprint and big missiles, the country has succeeded in warming ties with the mainland while emerging from its political isolation.

Taiwan President Ma Ying-jeou at innauguration_370 (photo credit: Reuters)
Taiwan President Ma Ying-jeou at innauguration_370
(photo credit: Reuters)
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 work.
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 dancing troupes.
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 Asia.
“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 Jin-pyng.
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.
But the 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.
“In 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 transit.
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.
“We 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 very well.
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 existence.”
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.
Still, the mutual reconciliation policy has nonetheless boosted Taiwan’s diplomatic standing abroad, and there are signs that mainland China is even softening its stance.
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 mainland China.
“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 Ma.
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.
These 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 through globalization.”
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.
“The 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 anymore.
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.”
The Mainland 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.
“We may 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 said.
“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.”
“We know 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.”