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Taiwan poised to warm ties with China

Both presidential hopefuls in Saturday's election want to boost economic relations.

By Jonathan AdamsCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / March 21, 2008


For a glimpse of Taiwan's warming relations with China, come to this forested island just off the mainland coast.

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Direct cross-strait travel is largely prohibited because of the decades-old standoff between Taiwan and China. But here in Kinmen, Chinese tourists visit freely and Taiwanese businessmen can ferry across the strait to the mainland.

The Kinmen model will be expanded to all of Taiwan if either of the two candidates in the Taiwan's presidential election Saturday has his way. Their only argument is over the speed and scale at which that should happen.

For behind all the boisterous rallies and China-bashing rhetoric across Taiwan in recent days, this election is not about the usual hot-button issue of unification with, or independence from, China – neither of which is in the cards anytime soon. Rather, it's about how economically close Taiwan should be with its giant neighbor. Will it be an uneasy handshake or a passionate embrace?

Either way, the candidates' willingness to engage rather than confront Beijing signals a pause in Taiwan's independence push and the likely cooling of a long-simmering Asian flash point.

"No matter who wins, we'll move closer to China," says Lin Wen-cheng, a China expert at National Sun Yat-sen University in Kaohsiung and a former adviser to two Taiwan presidents. "Cross-strait relations are going to improve."

From battlefront to tourist stop

Kinmen was a dangerous front line in the mid-20th century, with some 100,000 Kuomintang soldiers engaged in fierce artillery battles with the Communists just a few miles across the water.

Now, only about 5,000 Taiwanese soldiers remain at coastal gun emplacements and other sites. Ferry terminals have replaced minefields; in 2001, daily runs were established with two cities on the mainland. These give Chinese tourists a chance to visit Taiwan and some Taiwanese businessmen a shortcut to their mainland factories. Most cross-strait travel, by contrast, must pass through a third location such as Hong Kong.

China-Kinmen transits have soared from 21,000 in 2001 to 725,000 last year; homeward-bound mainlanders crowd the ferry terminal with huge hauls of the island's famous goods.

Boosting cross-strait ties

The Kuomintang's (KMT) Ma Ying-jeou, who led in the latest available polls, has made the more ambitious pledges of the two candidates. He promises direct cross-strait flights, more Chinese tourists and investment allowed into Taiwan, and, possibly, a cross-strait common market. He also wants to engage Beijing in peace talks and is willing to accept the "one China" principle in order to do so.

His rival, Frank Hsieh, makes similar promises, but is more cautious. And his party refuses to accept any version of the "one China" principle, which would make cross-strait political talks more difficult, if not impossible.