Monday, January 28, 2002

Possible Breakthrough in Tense China-Taiwan Relations

Pacific News Service, George Koo, Posted: Jan 28, 2002

Editor's Note: In the past, pro-independence moves by Taiwan led China to hold military exercises in the Taiwan Strait. But economic and political realities and recent conciliatory moves by politicians on both sides suggest a breakthrough in cross-strait relations may be imminent.

Recent developments suggest a breakthrough in tense China-Taiwan relations is imminent.

Last December, a delegation from the Committee of 100, a national organization of prominent Chinese Americans, met with leaders on both sides of the Taiwan Strait, among them, Qian Qichen in Beijing and Wang Daohan in Shanghai. Qian is a vice premier and former minister of foreign affairs and Wang is a senior statesman formerly in charge of cross-strait negotiations on behalf of Beijing.

Both indicate that so long as both sides accept "one China" as the underlying principle, what constitutes one China is open for discussion and both parties might come to the table as equals.

Indeed, Taiwan's President Chen Shui-bian and his political rivals James Soong and Lien Chan in their meetings with the Committee all admitted that economically and socially, Taiwan and the mainland are already integrated. To Chen, the question is how to continue the integration while retaining the right of Taiwan's people to choose their own form of government.

Ma Ying-jeou, the mayor of Taipei, lamented to the visitors that the flow of young people and capital (upwards of $100 billion) has been all one way, from Taiwan to the mainland. Taiwan's young people today favor universities on the mainland over those in Taiwan. They envision launching their careers in greater Shanghai.

As mayor, Ma is anxious to visit the mainland to promote investments in the reverse direction. "Time is not on our side," he said to the group. He does not view separateness as favorable to Taiwan.

The sands of time are beginning to flow for President Chen as well. The recently concluded parliamentary election finally gave him a workable plurality in the legislature. This means he can no longer blame obstruction of the opposition parties as the cause for Taiwan's current economic contraction.

Chen will have to deliver on turning the economy around, and he can't improve the economy without Beijing's cooperation. To suffer another year of negative growth could jeopardize his prospects for re-election two years from now.

Lastly, a rogue factor that bedeviled the cross-strait relations in the past has been reduced to a bit player. Mr. Iwasato Masao, nee Lee Teng-hui, former president of Taiwan, is now off the stage.

China and Taiwan had actually reached a common understanding in 1992 that led to a formal document signed by both sides in Singapore in April 1993. Lee halted that momentum when he publicly denied Taiwan was part of China, in essence tearing up the "one China" doctrine.

In the evolving relations across the Taiwan Strait, private words do not always match public deeds. A month after Chen's private meeting with the Committee, he has seemingly recanted his position, ordering the word "Taiwan" added to the cover of all passports previously marked only with "Republic of China," a move widely regarded as a sop to placate pro-independence factions within his party.

Beijing regards this latest act as a pro-independence provocation, and inconsistent with Chen's alleged private desire. Spokespersons from Beijing loudly condemned Chen for the move.

But time is not necessarily on the mainland side either. Chen's party, the Democratic Progressive Party, has 86 out of a total of 225 seats in the legislature. The DPP will have to form a coalition to attain a working majority. Lee's splinter group, Taiwan Solidarity Union, captured 13 seats in the election and represents a wildcard in the cross-strait relations. Beijing may want to isolate Lee rather than push Chen into the same camp.

Taiwan and China have both just entered the World Trade Organization. In doing so, they will need to meet and discuss various issues relating to compliance with terms and conditions of the WTO. They will have ample opportunity to quietly explore how to reach peaceful, mutual accommodation. The only way a breakthrough in cross-strait relations can begin may be out of the limelight.

The affairs of Chinese Americans in America are directly impacted by the state of U.S.-China relations. Positive relations require no more Wen Ho Lee cases. U.S.-China relations are also affected by the cross-strait relationship. A breakthrough leading to a peaceful Taiwan Strait would be good news for all Americans, especially those of Chinese ancestry.