A bridge across the Taiwan Strait

For the first time since the end of China’s civil war in 1949, representatives from the two governments on either side of the Taiwan Strait sat down at the same table to discuss a shared future. Although expectations were low, the mere fact that the meeting took place is significant.

More progress is expected in the cross-strait relationship as trust builds between the governments in Beijing and Taipei — and Beijing tries to lock in gains ahead of the new round of presidential elections in Taiwan.

The governments in both China and Taiwan have claimed to be the rightful ruler of “one China” since the Nationalists fled the mainland in 1949. Beijing has insisted that Taiwan is a renegade province and that any attempt by that government to accept reality — that it will not regain control of the mainland — and declare its independence from China would be a pretext for war.

Opinion polls consistently show that the 23 million Taiwanese harbor a desire to be an independent state, but they also know that such a move would cross Beijing’s red line, so they settle for their current status — recognized as a country by just 22 states and acknowledged as under-represented at most international forums.

Successive governments in China have attempted to engineer a reconciliation with Taiwan, but no Beijing leadership has been able to respond to the aspirations of the Taiwan people, win over their hearts and minds, and get them to accept closer ties with China.

The result has been a stalemate, punctuated on occasion by warnings that China’s patience is not unlimited and that there must be progress toward reunification. That statement is intended to be as ominous as it sounds, as China’s economic weight and its political influence have managed to silence most international objections. For the overwhelming majority of the world, Taiwan is a part of China and cross-Strait relations are China’s internal affairs.

When Ma Ying-jeou was elected president of Taiwan in 2008, the Communist government in Beijing recognized that it had to seize the opportunity afforded by a Nationalist president to build closer ties with Taiwan. The two governments declared a “diplomatic truce,” Beijing tried to give Taipei more “international space” — allowing it to join some international organizations as an observer (as long as Beijing was consulted in advance) — and economic ties were expanded to give Taiwanese a keener appreciation of the value of good relations with the mainland.

Cross-strait trade has nearly doubled in the almost six years since Ma took office, reaching $197 billion, facilitated by the signing of the Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement in 2010. Almost 3 million Chinese traveled to Taiwan last year as well, an attempt to reinforce the notion of “one China.”

Fear in Beijing that an official meeting between the two governments would legitimize the Taipei government has meant that all negotiations were carried out by two “unofficial” organizations: the Straits Exchange Foundation in Taiwan and the Association for Relations Across the Taiwan Straits in China. In fact, each organization is closely connected to its government, and officials were at each discussion, though not in leading roles.

The agreement to hold a government to government meeting is thus a real shift in the diplomatic landscape. There is no mistaking the symbolic significance of the first official meeting between the two sides in over 60 years.

The historic encounter took place in Nanjing, the capital of the Nationalist government before it fled to Taiwan and the agenda took up ways to formalize and improve communications between the two, as well as the status of trade and economic relations.

The main substantive issue is whether each government will open a representative office on the other side of the strait, an extremely sensitive question because it raises questions related to the duties and status of each office.

Will the premises enjoy something akin to — but obviously not the same as — diplomatic status? Will they have “consular duties” such as visiting individuals detained by the other government? In each case, the privileges involved come close to those afforded sovereign states, which rings alarm bells in Beijing.

Much remains to be worked out. And while both sides applauded the meeting and want to maintain the momentum that has been achieved, the refusal of the Chinese government to grant visas to two journalists from Taiwan was a reminder of the fundamental differences that stand in the way of progress.

Equally troubling for Beijing is Ma’s plummeting approval rating. He may favor closer ties with China, but bold moves by an unpopular president only look desperate and undermine the perceived credibility of any positive gains he might make.

Taiwan’s electorate are smart. They have not been intimidated by Beijing’s threats in the past and they will be equally resistant to blatant inducements that attempt to sway Taiwanese voters.

For his part, Ma insists that any major political agreement with China must be approved by a referendum in Taiwan. That remains a long way off, but it is much closer after this week’s meeting.