Opinion

For China and Taiwan, a welcome thaw

We are witnessing a maturing relationship in which the antagonists have agreed to put aside the issue that has divided them for 60 years in favor of getting practical benefits.

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Taiwan has relied heavily on US presidential support for its independent existence in a "one China" world, but recent steps toward warmer cross-Strait relations may mean Taiwan will need to depend less on Barack Obama when he's president.

Earlier this month, China's Chen Yun-lin became the highest-ranking Chinese official to visit the island since Chiang Kai-shek fled the mainland in 1949.

Mr. Chen, the Chairman of the Association for Relations Across the Taiwan Straits (ARATS), was in Taipei for a five-day visit that marked a major diplomatic thaw after eight years of tension during the presidency of independence-minded Chen Shui-bien. The meeting featured four China-Taiwan agreements providing for direct air, shipping, and postal links, and food safety.

For decades, Beijing sought direct shipping, telecommunications, postal service, and travel across the Taiwan Strait as a route to eventual reunification. Despite burgeoning investment in China, Taipei demurred, fearing Beijing would gain additional leverage over its future. Direct links were put off interminably because the mere fact of negotiating them involves symbols of sovereignty over Taiwan, which Beijing insisted on and Taipei refused to relinquish.

Taiwan's President Ma Ying-jeou offered to move the process forward after taking office in May, and there has been a palpable reduction in paranoia about sovereignty on both sides. As the ARATS chairman's recent visit shows, we are witnessing a maturing relationship in which the antagonists have agreed to put aside the issue that has divided them for 60 years in favor of getting practical benefits that they want.

Beijing's leaders have long acted on the premise that China can bring Taiwan back to the motherland with a gentle but powerful economic embrace that will eventually convince the people of Taiwan where their interests lie. This has been complemented by the never-abandoned threat to take the "renegade province" back by force if Taipei declares independence.

Achieving long-sought direct communications across the Taiwan Strait is a symbolic triumph for China. Taiwan reaps benefits with big reductions in costs of trade, and comfort that investments in China are safer than before. Arguably, none of this narrows the political gulf that has persisted for generations. Taipei has gained no leverage to persuade Beijing to withdraw its missiles aimed at Taiwan. Taipei's efforts to participate in international organizations will remain Beijing's choice to thwart.

Beijing cannot get what it wants politically, either. The Taipei government is not about to give up its sovereignty, as feared by the hundreds of thousands of activists who took to the streets on Oct. 25 to accuse President Ma of selling out the country to China.

Most Taiwanese would rather believe that their de facto independence is more secure now that Beijing's senior ARATS official came to Taiwan to sign cooperation agreements and call on the president. In a recent poll, 72 percent of Taiwanese said negotiations on practical issues are the best way to resolve the Taiwan-China dispute.

There is nothing substantial besides fear and pro-independence opposition to suggest that any Taiwan president would acquiesce in Beijing's demands to recognize the so-called one China principle or accept a Hong Kong-style special administrative region settlement anytime soon. The demands of domestic stability will impel Ma to stick with the political status quo while he pursues agreements in other economic areas where understandings with Beijing reportedly have been reached.

The real significance of these historic direct links agreements is that it is becoming less urgent for both China and Taiwan to pursue political goals in their relationship. Instead, we might be witnessing the beginning of an era of cross-strait relations conducted in much the way that normal diplomatic relationships are conducted. Perhaps the era of outrage – Beijing demanding capitulation and Taipei screaming de jure independence – will be overtaken by what could be a continuing search for the benefits of increased interdependence.

If this trend continues, it will be good news for Mr. Obama. Not having to press either Beijing or Taipei to cool their antagonisms will open up opportunities for a more constructive relationship with Beijing that might even facilitate more international breathing space for Taiwan. The way for Washington to avert perpetual conflict over Taiwan is to pursue the possibility that China increasingly perceives that its interest lies in conciliating Taiwan and keeping differences over Taiwan issues from dominating the US-China relationship.

Syd Goldsmith is a former director of the American Institute in Taiwan's Kaohsiung Office, and the author of "Jade Phoenix," a novel of Taiwan in the 1970s.

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