Chinese President Xi Jinping took the bold decision to meet his Taiwanese counterpart, Ma Ying-jeou, at Singapore on November 7, 2015 to assure the disgruntled Taiwanese that the Chinese think of them as brothers. Astonishingly, this was the first serious meeting between China and Taiwan in 66 years, once the mighty Communists under Mao had taken over leadership in 1949.
From this and other Chinese initiatives, it is patently clear that China is leaving no stone unturned to foster political, economic and defence ties with Taiwan. The meeting resulted in a four-point proposal. President Xi categorically illustrated the 1992 consensus that gave birth to the One China principle and opposition to Taiwan independence as the common political ground of both sides.
However, there are still some stumbling blocks that could hinder meaningful cooperation by increasing confrontation and divergences between the two. As some ground realities manifestly suggest, the Taiwanese are slowly but steadily drifting away from the One China policy – towards full independence. If such a situation arises, China has threatened to employ fierce force to keep Taiwan with it.
Historically speaking, China acquired independence in 1945. The Kuomintang (KMT) – that had fought side by side by the Chinese Communist Party (CMP) to discard the yoke of Japanese tyranny – usurped power after Japan’s crushing defeat. This was followed by a bloody civil war between the KMT and the CPC. The KMT led by Chiang Kai-shek was completely routed by the Communists, and its forces fled to the island fortress across the Taiwan Strait. There the KMT established the Republic of China, Taiwan.
The west backed Chiang Kai-shek and recognised Taiwan as the only China while brushing aside over 1.3 billion Chinese residents of mainland China. It was in 1972 when US president Richard Nixon established amicable relations with China and restored the latter’s position as a permanent member of the UN Security Council. However, relations between China and Taiwan have remained rocky because of China’s position that Taiwan is part of China, and Taiwanese inclination towards full independence.
Bilateral relations have improved tremendously. Both countries have conducted occasional and low-level meetings since 1993. Since 2008, they have inked 23 accords. More than 40,000 students have taken advantage of academic exchange programmes. Students of Taiwanese origin receive special concessions in the National Higher Education Entrance Examination in mainland China. There are regular programmes for school students from each side to visit the other.
Cultural exchanges between both countries have increased in frequency. The National Palace Museum in Taipei and the Palace Museum in Beijing have collaborated on exhibitions. Scholars and academics frequently visit institutions on the other side. Books published on each side are regularly republished on the other side, though restrictions on direct imports and the different orthography between the two sides somewhat impede the exchange of books and ideas. At present, over eight million tourists travel between the two sides each year.
On the economic front, cross-strait investments have greatly increased in recent years. Predominantly, this involves Taiwan-based firms moving to and collaborating in joint ventures in mainland China. The collective body of Taiwanese investors in China is now a significant economic force for both China and Taiwan. In 2014, trade values between the two sides reached $198.31 billion, with imports from Taiwan to the mainland counted up to $152 billion. If the ongoing atmosphere of understanding and bilateral parleys continues, trade will double and so will exchange of students and tourists. China should move carefully in its relations with Taiwan due to the historical, economic and political irritants between the two. The prevailing public opinion against China has been framed by the nationalists in such a way that it could burst any moment, thus inhibiting stronger cooperation and ties.
At present, the more independence-minded Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), the main opposition party, is using the nationalist card to win the January 2016 presidential elections. Alarmingly, the DPP is expected to carry the day in the elections. The KMT’s presidential nominee, Eric Chau, according to recent polls, lags far behind Tsai Ing-Wen of the DPP. Since the DPP leans towards independence and most of its members despise the notion of the One China policy, after winning the presidency they would probably adopt an unfriendly posture and tone with China.
Moreover, a large number of Taiwanese view China as an imperialist power that could one day occupy Taiwan completely and take away their separate identity. Recent surveys show that the majority of Taiwanese aged under 40 consider themselves only Taiwanese and pro-independence. Such consciousness of their identity and nationality will widen the generation gap between China and Taiwan. It would also result in lack of understanding and increase in confrontation that does not augur well for tranquil relations between them in the near future.
Over and above, the Taiwanese are rather apprehensive about economic relations with mainland China. During Ying-jeou’s second term, many Taiwanese have grown increasing unhappy over a flurry of agreements with China. These accords, 23 in all, promote economic integration across the straits. The Taiwanese fear that China wants to control and govern Taiwan by dominating the latter’s economy completely.
In this context, last year, hundreds and thousands of Taiwanese took to the streets of Taipei in anti-trade protests led by students who also occupied the legislature. Such anti-trade remonstration could be the order of the day during the canvassing of the DPP on the eve of the upcoming elections. Resultantly, such protests may spark off heavy-handedness by the Chinese government, with bilateral relations being affected.
One more irritant in the way of harmonious bilateral relations is the Chinese move of island-building in the disputed waters of the South China Sea. No doubt, the Taiwanese watch and perceive such measures as part of a policy of containment and dominance of the region. On this point, the US shares Taiwan’s concerns and is also predisposed to further aggravate anti-China opinion in Taiwan.
Last but not the least, China’s military build-up against Taiwan will further deteriorate bilateral relations. The PRC’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has moved ballistic missiles and modern warplanes to bases within range of Taiwan. In response, Taiwan is investing in an anti-missile system intended to negate a large number of PLA missiles. The US is prepared to lethally arm Taiwan against China.
For more engagement and cooperation with Taiwan, China should soften its assertiveness in the restive South China Sea. The Xi-led CPC should also make it clear to the fearful Taiwanese that mainland China will never annex Taiwan militarily. China also needs to decrease its military build-up on the frontier close to Taiwan.
Equally important, the Chinese should avoid responding harshly to anti-China political slogans during election canvassing on the eve of the upcoming presidential elections in Taiwan. Cooperation not confrontation will prove the peaceful credentials of China’s economic and military rise.
The writer is the editor of The Asia Watch.