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China's 'silent treatment' of Taiwan closer to ending

Taiwan's vice-president elect meets with mainland China about a cross-straits economic stimulus plan.

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More ambitious, Ma hopes to reach agreement with Beijing on Taiwan's role in international groups. "I don't think there are major differences in principle between the KMT and the mainland side, the problem is in technicalities – names, titles, and format issues," said Chu Shulong, of Beijing's Tsinghua University. "They may not express different ideas now, but they will have differences in the future."

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One example: Taiwan's ongoing bid for observer status in the World Health Organization. Beijing could finally allow Taiwan such status next year after Ma has taken power, but only after extensive negotiations on Taiwan's official name and role in the organization.

Ma says he'll take a more flexible approach than his pro-independence predecessor, with a willingness to accept titles such as "Chinese Taipei."

Ma has also floated the possibility of a cross-strait peace deal, which would require a resolution on Taiwan's political status. That appears out of reach as Ma himself has ruled out unification and few Taiwanese support political union.

"I see quite a bit of incentive in the early stages to deal with practical issues, but I don't think we'll see much in the way of reaching a real peace agreement," said Oxford's Tsang. China's top priorities are managing its domestic economy and improving governance. Ma's focus will be on reviving Taiwan's economy and consolidating his power over a fractured KMT and a pro-independence opposition that's worried he could move too close to China.

"Ma needs to work on the 42 percent of voters who didn't vote for him," said Lin Chong-Pin, a former defense official and now president of the Foundation for International and Cross-strait Studies in Taipei. "Beijing also realizes the difficulty of tackling political issues too soon. So I think [the two sides] will hold back on political issues until a much later date."

The next near-term test will be during Ma's inauguration address. Beijing will be listening closely to how Ma describes Taiwan, and whether he persists in criticism of Beijing for its human rights record and approach to unrest in Tibet.

"We may not expect nice words, but we don't want to listen to negative words," said Tsinghua University's Chu.