A small moment in the history of China and Taiwan

February 12, 2014

This week’s meeting between officials from the Chinese and Taiwanese governments is historic, but more for its symbolism than any prospect of dramatic outcomes.

For Beijing the hope is that after eight years of improving economic ties, the talks are the beginning of a political process that will see the island nation of 23 million people absorbed into China.

That is not going to happen in the foreseeable future. Polls in Taiwan consistently show that over 80 per cent of the island’s people cherish their independence. They don’t want any kind of political union with China, not even a form of the “one country, two systems” formula by which the former European colonies of Hong Kong and Macau have been returned to Beijing’s rule.

More than that, Taiwan’s President Ma Ying-jeou has no mandate to engage in significant political talks with Beijing.

He has talked of trying to achieve a peace treaty with Beijing before he leaves office in 2016. But even this seemingly innocuous objective was seen by very many Taiwanese as opening the door to talks on political union. Ma was forced to promise a referendum before starting peace talks. There is little doubt the public would reject the proposal.

Ma was first elected in 2008 on the promise of boosting Taiwan’s economy by improving trade relations with China, from which the island was separated at the end of the civil war in 1949.

Direct economic and travel links have been established, and cross-strait trade has nearly doubled during Ma’s time in office to $200 billion last year. But the benefits in Taiwan have gone mostly to the wealthy few. Like many other places promoting business with China, one of Taiwan’s major imports has been economic disparity between the rich and the rest in what was once one of the world’s most equitable economies.

An Economic Co-operation Framework Agreement was signed in 2010, using unofficial bodies in both Taiwan and China to negotiate the deal. But because of widespread unhappiness in Taiwan about the effects of increased trade, a follow-up agreement dealing with the service sector is stalled in the island’s legislature.

Even though Ma was re-elected for a second and final four-year term in 2012, largely by the gift of his opponents’ folly, his failed economic management has dragged his popularity down below 10 per cent. This record level of disapproval has reduced his administration to near dysfunction.

With less than two years left in his mandate, the knives are out for Ma within his Kuomintang (KMT) party, and his would-be successors are beginning to jockey for position. If the KMT does badly in local elections in November, which is very likely, there is talk among party heavyweights that Ma must take responsibility by resigning the party leadership.

This will leave Ma as nothing more than a paper President in his final months in office.

China’s Communist Party leaders have consistently expressed their determination to gain sovereignty over Taiwan since the defeated KMT leader Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek fled to the island with his followers and established a military regime there in 1949.

But as China’s growing economic importance has brought Beijing increasing self-confidence as a regional power broker, it has also become impatient with Taiwan’s continuing determination to keep its independence.

At a regional economic summit in Indonesia last year, China’s new President and Communist Party boss Xi Jinping told a Taiwanese envoy that political negotiations cannot be put off indefinitely. There was no need for Xi to remind Taiwan that Beijing maintains the threat to invade the island, and that after two decades of military modernisation, is now in a better position to do so than it has been in the past.

The style and symbolism of this week’s meeting between Taiwan’s Mainland Affairs Council (MAC) and China’s Taiwan Affairs Office (TAO), indicate that Beijing is well aware that it has a frail partner in the diminishing Ma administration.

Beijing’s main objective in these talks is to try to ensure that some formal links between the two governments are established and continue. To that end, Beijing threw Ma some crumbs of status and refrained from treating him as the illegitimate leader of a rebel province, it’s normal characterisation of Taiwan’s Presidents.

China allowed Taiwan’s MAC officials to display equal status to their TAO counterparts, and didn’t even insist that the meeting be in the capital, Beijing.

Instead the talks were held in Nanjing, which was the capital when the KMT ruled China.

Ma would undoubtedly like Beijing to acknowledge equal status of the two governments more broadly. Since the 1970s China has blocked Taiwanese participation in all international bodies, except as an economic entity without the status of a nation.

Ma would like Beijing to relax these vetoes and allow Taiwan some independent diplomatic space. But Beijing will do nothing that suggests it acknowledges Taiwan is an independent country.

So an agreement that MAC and TAO officials will hold regular meetings is the most that can be expected from this historic moment.

Copyright © Jonathan Manthorpe 2014

Contact: jonathan.manthorpe@gmail.com