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In 1958, the Nationalist forces that ruled Taiwan conducted a 44-day artillery duel with the mainland, firing from the tiny islands of Matsu and Quemoy. At the time, the exchange prompted fears of a wider conflict. Slowly, however, the barrages became routine: China only fired on odd-numbered days to make sure that soldiers could find cover. Last week, Taiwan launched an offensive of a different sort from the same islands. This time, however, the assault was wholly peaceful; it represents a first step — albeit a tiny one — in the resumption of normal relations between Taiwan and the mainland.

Three small ships sailed legally from the front-line islands to mainland China for the first time in 51 years. The ships, crowded with tourists, departed from Quemoy and Matsu, which can be seen from the mainland, and docked at ports in Fujian Province. There has been illicit trade for years, although the authorities merely ignored it. But last month, the government of Taiwan’s President Chen Shui-bian decided to make those trips legal. China grudgingly approved.

China’s lack of enthusiasm was predictable. Although Beijing has pushed for direct contact between the island and the mainland, it wants full trade, transport and postal links. Instead, Mr. Chen approved contact only for residents of the offshore islands, who must use Taiwanese ferries. Mainland visitors are limited to 700 a week, and they can tour only the islands.

Beijing attacked the opening as mere symbolism and derided Taipei for abandoning “the main road to take the small road.” Beijing fears that the gesture is designed to buy time for Mr. Chen and relieve pressure on him to respond to China’s demand for direct talks between the two governments. For his part, Mr. Chen, like governments before him, fears that opening direct links will give the mainland too much influence over the island economy and, through that channel, its politics. The ban on direct links is inconvenient for Taiwanese businesses eager to penetrate the mainland market, but it insulates the island from Chinese pressure. That, too, is something of a game. Taiwan has invested some $45 billion in the mainland. The origins of the funds may be obscured, but everyone knows who is doing business on the mainland.

The shouting match, like the artillery duels in the ’50s and ’60s, is both serious and staged. China will not tolerate any hint of independent-minded behavior from Taiwan, but the leadership in Beijing knows that the odds of any such declaration have diminished in recent years. The Chinese know that they have the upper hand diplomatically — although the new U.S. administration does change the mix somewhat — and they are keeping the pressure on Mr. Chen.

Part of that strategy consists of ignoring him. Beijing wants an unequivocal acceptance of the “one-China policy” by Mr. Chen before it will talk to him. Such a statement would be political suicide for any Taiwanese leader, and especially for Mr. Chen, who heads the Democratic Progressive Party whose platform originally demanded independence.

Having boxed him in, China then tries to outflank him by dealing with Taiwan’s opposition parties and business community. And, true to form, just as the “mini-links” opened last week, lawmakers from Taiwan’s Nationalist Party and New Party were in Beijing for talks with officials from the semi-official mainland body that handles ties with Taiwan and to meet Vice Premier Qian Qichen.

The stalemate will end this year, however. China and Taiwan are expected to become members of the World Trade Organization in 2001. After entering the WTO, both Taiwan and China are required to offer each other the same trading rights and privileges as those extended to other trade partners. This, of course, includes the three links and means that Taiwan must change its policy. If it does not, China can protest to the WTO. Taiwan may plead for an exemption on national-security grounds, but it is unclear whether that will prove valid. No matter what the outcome, the fight will raise tensions between the two governments.

The hope is that mini-links will create a momentum that leads to real dialogue and the opening of full contacts. That means Beijing must concede their symbolic importance and use that as a springboard to more substantive talks, which will require the Beijing leadership to appear more flexible. That may be hard for them to swallow, but the WTO requirements give China the diplomatic and legal advantage, and the Taiwanese public overwhelmingly favors the status quo. Clearly, then, forcing the issue is not in China’s interest.

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