22 January 2019
Mainland China and Taiwan  must accept that the time is not ripe for a final decision on unification or independence. Photo: HKEJ
Mainland China and Taiwan must accept that the time is not ripe for a final decision on unification or independence. Photo: HKEJ

Taiwan and mainland move into new stage of relations

In 2008, after Ma Ying-jeou was elected president, he halted the political war over sovereignty between Taiwan and mainland China and focused on improving cross-strait relations. Dialogue with the mainland since then has resulted in more than a dozen agreements, primarily on economic issues.

Six years later, the results are evident. Trade between the two sides, which stood at US$129.2 billion in 2008, rose to US$197.2 billion in 2013.

The Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement signed of 2010 enabled Taiwan to negotiate trade agreements so far with New Zealand and Singapore.

To increase Taiwan’s international space, Ma sought participation in the work of United Nations agencies and asked Beijing for help. As a result, Taiwan has been invited to participate in the World Health Assembly since 2009 and the International Civil Aviation Organization as of last year.

These are major achievements. The mainland, on its part, retains the ability to decide whether the invitations should be continued each year, keeping Taiwan on a tight leash.

In 2012, after his reelection, Ma recalled that in his first term, he had given priority to “easily resolved issues before difficult ones, and economic matters before political ones”. This approach, Ma said, has yielded “unprecedented successes”.

But now, it appears, the mainland feels that after having dispensed so many favors to Taiwan, it is time for some reciprocation.

In October, on the margins of the APEC meeting in Bali, Chinese leader Xi Jinping told Ma’s representative, former vice president Vincent Siew: “The issue of political disagreements that exist between the two sides must reach a final resolution, step by step. These issues cannot be passed on from generation to generation.”

The historic meeting in Nanjing last week between the heads of Taiwan’s Mainland Affairs Council, Wang Yu-chi, and of the mainland’s Taiwan Affairs Office, Zhang Zhijun, should be seen in this light.

This was the first official meeting between the two sides in 65 years. This was also the first time that the mainland has acknowledged the governmental status of a Taiwan official. The previous practice was always to put in quotations marks titles such as “minister” to indicate that Beijing does not recognize its validity.

So far, Ma has been pushing the notion of “mutual non-denial of jurisdiction” between the two sides as the governing principle of cross-strait relations. If the mainland was willing to go beyond “non-denial” to actually recognize the jurisdiction of the Ma administration, it would be a major step forward, one that Taiwan would no doubt be happy to reciprocate.

The question now is where the relationship is headed. The groundwork has been laid for further official meetings, with Zhang having accepted Wang’s invitation to visit Taiwan. However, while Ma has indicated that political issues won’t be shunned if they crop up, he clearly doesn’t have a mandate to cut any deal with the mainland on Taiwan’s future.

Taiwan’s parliament made that obvious on Jan. 14 when it adopted a resolution on Wang’s trip to Nanjing. The resolution stipulated that he could not sign any document or issue any joint statement that accepted Beijing’s claim on a “one China” framework or its opposition to Taiwan independence.

However, it is worth Taiwan’s while to explore what Beijing has in mind. At the last public appearance by Hu Jintao as Communist Party leader in November 2012, he reported to the 18th party congress that the two sides should “jointly explore cross-strait political relations and make reasonable arrangements for them under the special condition that the country is yet to be reunified”.

That suggests that Beijing may be seeking some sort of interim arrangement, which presumably may be of a long duration, during which time Taiwan will continue to enjoy de facto independence.

That is to say, it may be possible to maintain the political status quo – the desire of the vast majority of Taiwan’s people – for an indefinite period.

This would mean the acceptance by both sides of the reality that the time is not ripe for a final decision on unification or independence, and that such a decision cannot be imposed on the people of Taiwan now that the island is a genuine democracy.

Meanwhile, trust needs to be developed between the two sides. Taiwan, to ensure its economic survival, is seeking participation in regional trade bodies such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership and Asean’s Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership.

Given the mainland’s current status as the world’s biggest trading nation, this is only likely to happen with its blessing. Such a decision will gain goodwill in Taiwan but it is not an easy decision for Beijing.

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Frank Ching opened The Wall Street Journal’s Bureau in China in 1979. He is now a Hong Kong-based writer on Chinese affairs.

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