Historic meeting could unfreeze frigid China-Taiwan relations

Column by Linsen Li

The recent meeting between two top leaders of China and Taiwan may eventually be regarded as the pivotal point of cross-strait relations.

China President Hu Jintao and Taiwan Vice-President-elect Vincent Siew met Saturday on the Chinese island of Hainan during a business conference. This meeting is the most significant of its kind since 1949, when the Nationalist-led Taiwain split from mainland after losing the civil war to the Communists.

While the meeting itself was focused on improving cross-strait economic ties, it would be difficult to ignore its historical significance.

Taiwan’s Democratic Progressive Party, a party in favor of independence from the mainland, has seen its power gradually diminish in the past few years. Promising closer economic ties and better relations with China, the Kuomintang (KMT) candidate Ma Ying-jeou won a landslide victory in last month’s presidential election, completing the party’s reclaiming of power.

With this meeting taking place just several weeks after its victory, KMT is making a clear statement that it’s serious about improving relations with Beijing, stirring away from DPP’s previous strategy of mutual avoidance.

From a practical perspective, both sides desperately needed this meeting.

Beijing currently faces tremendous international pressure over its handling of the recent protests centered on Tibet, and China’s leaders are trying to garner any positive publicity within their reach. With this meeting, China is showing the world that it’s open for dialogues, even with parties of differing opinions.

On the other hand, Taiwan, once hailed as one of Asia’s Four Dragons for its rapid industrialization and economic growth, has seen its economy remain largely stagnant in the past decade. Closer trade relations with the mainland can stimulate a fresh wave of economic growth in Taiwan.

But for the above plan to be realized, China’s cooperation must be assured. For the KMT and Taiwan’s voters, they were right to count China in from the beginning.

The meeting was a success to both sides. According to China’s Xinhua news agency, President Hu and Siew were optimistic about the future of cross-strait business exchange; Hu also backed two proposals by Siew: opening up Taiwan to more Chinese tourists and allowing direct charter flights for the first time since 1949.

One shouldn’t be carried away by the news of this meeting. Both sides carefully treaded around sensitive political issues and discussed economy-related issues alone. Even the nature of the meeting itself was unofficial: Siew attended the conference as the head of Taiwan’s business delegation.

The meeting didn’t melt all the ice collected on the cross-strait relations over the past six decades. It is largely symbolic, but groundbreaking nevertheless: a gesture of good faith by both sides, and a promise for more open and encompassing communication to come.

Nor should one expect the Taiwan-China relations to be smooth sailing from this point on. Both sides have yet to touch the topic of Taiwan’s status.

KMT has traditionally wanted eventual unification with the mainland, but the majority of Taiwanese are in favor of the status quo; China, on the other hand, maintains that Taiwan is part of its territory and has vowed to use military force upon a unilateral declaration of independence.

To conciliate the differences, Ma, Taiwan’s president-elect, has proposed an innovative strategy of “mutual non-denial,” meaning that China does not deny Taiwan’s existence, but it cannot recognize its sovereignty.

Is Taiwan part of China? This question, seemingly straightforward enough, remains the greatest obstacle that lies between Taiwan and China.

Luckily for both sides, for now, that is not the most pressing question.