China closed a chapter in its history this week with the visit to the mainland by Mr. Lien Chan, the head of Taiwan’s Kuomintang (KMT), or Nationalist Party. Mr. Lien’s trip was the first by a KMT leader since Chiang Kai-shek fled to Taiwan in 1949, abandoning the country to Mao Zedong and the Chinese Communist Party. It is tantalizing to think that the visit might herald a breakthrough in cross-strait relations, but it is the product of tactical calculations by both sides. The question now is whether it will increase tensions between Taipei and Beijing.
Mr. Lien’s visit marked the highest-level meetings between Chinese and Taiwanese officials since the Chinese civil war. During his eight-day visit, Mr. Lien visited Nanjing, the capital of China when the Nationalists ruled; Xian, his birthplace; Shanghai; and Beijing, where he had a nationally televised meeting with Chinese President Hu Jintao.
Afterward, the two sides released a party-to-party communique that acknowledged the 1992 consensus on “one China.” They called for the resumption of cross-strait negotiations based on the ’92 consensus, a peace treaty, increased economic exchange, consultations on Taiwan’s participation in international activities, and the establishment of a platform for party-to-party contact.
Mr. Lien’s visit was controversial at home. There were violent protests upon his departure from Taiwan, where he was called a traitor and accused of selling out Taiwan. Some politicians called for his arrest.
To win over hardliners, China offered Taiwan two pandas, a gesture that recalled Beijing’s efforts in the 1970s to woo Americans who doubted the benefits of improved relations with what was then known as “Red China.” Beijing also proposed tariff reductions on Taiwanese fruit. While the cuts are not likely to provide a huge boost in cross-strait trade, which already exceeds $400 billion, they are an enticement to Taiwan’s southern farmers, an important constituency for Taiwan President Chen Shui-bian and his Democratic Progressive Party (DPP).
Beijing promised to reduce restrictions on travel to Taiwan. Less than 150,000 mainlanders visited the island last year, a sharp contrast to the 3.7 million Taiwanese who went the other way. An increase could give Taiwan’s economy a boost similar to what Hong Kong experienced in 1997. China’s gesture alone is not enough to open the doors, though, as Taiwan still requires that visiting Chinese be invited by Taiwanese groups.
The tactical considerations behind the visit are simple. Mr. Lien wants to send the message to Taiwanese that he and his party can manage cross-strait relations better than President Chen and his DPP, a message Beijing is happy to reinforce. After the National People’s Congress in March passed an anti-secession law, which provides a legal basis for a Chinese invasion of the island, China appears eager to soften Taiwanese views toward the mainland government.
Mr. Chen is reluctant to allow Mr. Lien to make that point, but outright rejection of the visit would have compounded suspicions that he could not tolerate any move that might improve the cross-strait atmosphere. Since Mr. Lien is only a party leader and the Lien-Hu meeting did not involve government negotiations, Mr. Chen did not object.
Wooing Mr. Lien is of limited benefit, however. After all, he is the leader of Taiwan’s opposition and has twice lost presidential elections. It might even backfire against China: His trip puts a shine on a lackluster political career and it could encourage him to stay on as head of the KMT for one more election, rather than turn the party over to a more dynamic figure.
Worse, many Taiwanese see Beijing’s appeal to the KMT as a blatant attempt to play “united front” politics and insert itself into Taiwan’s domestic politics. Improvement in cross-strait relations depends on the two governments talking to each other. But Beijing still refuses to negotiate with President Chen.
After Mr. Lien’s visit, Mr. Chen invited President Hu to come to Taiwan to see for himself how the island’s 23 million people feel about relations with the mainland. That invitation was quickly rejected. China appears to have upped the ante: In addition to demanding acknowledgment of the “one China” consensus and a halt to “separatist activities,” Chinese officials now want the DPP to rewrite its party constitution, eliminating all references to Taiwan’s independent sovereign status.
Next, Mr. James Soong, another Taiwanese opposition leader and head of the People’s First Party, is to visit Beijing and meet Mr. Hu and relay a message from Mr. Chen. The harsh tone of Beijing’s response to Mr. Chen’s invitation suggests that overture will fail. The only question that remains is whether political tensions in Taiwan will have increased after the two visits, and whether cross-strait relations will change.
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