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China, Taiwan ink trade and crime-fighting deals

The longtime rivals signed deals Sunday on boosting cross-strait flights, joint-crime fighting, and financial cooperation, but steered clear of politics.

By Jonathan AdamsCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / April 26, 2009

Taipei, Taiwan

Longtime rivals China and Taiwan signed a raft of commercial and crime-fighting deals on Sunday in Nanjing, in the third round of talks in a year.

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Progress in cross-strait relations has been remarkably fast. But now, with much of the "low-hanging fruit" in trade and transit deals already picked clean, the question many in Taiwan are asking is: What comes next?

Beijing considers self-ruled Taiwan as part of its territory, and longs to see it return to the fold. So it hopes talks will move on to political issues.

But in Taiwan, President Ma Ying-jeou has ruled out discussing unification. And the pro-independence opposition is becoming increasingly alarmed by how far and fast he has cozied up Beijing.

"Some people think Ma's government has made too many concessions on Taiwan's sovereignty," said Lin Wen-cheng, a cross-strait expert at National Sun Yat-sen University in Taiwan's second-largest city, Kaohsiung, and former adviser to two presidents.

On Sunday, the two sides inked deals on boosting cross-strait flights, joint-crime fighting, and financial cooperation. They also issued a statement on allowing Chinese investment in Taiwan.

The flight deal will normalize cross-strait air links, boosting them from 108 charter flights to 270 scheduled commercial flights per week between 25 cities in China and five in Taiwan. Just a year ago, the two sides only ran special holiday charter flights between a handful of cities.

The financial agreement paves the way for banks and insurers do business on the other side of the Strait. And the crime-fighting deal will help counter cross-strait drug trafficking and money laundering, and make it harder for Taiwanese fugitives to hide out in the mainland.

Such deals appear to have majority support here. A government-commissioned poll showed that 53 percent are happy with the pace of cross-strait opening or even think it's going too slow, compared to 34 percent who believe it's going too fast.

Support for further deals could wane

But several factors could dampen support for further deals. Amid the global downturn, the opening to China has so far failed to give Taiwan's economy the boost that President Ma promised. That's helped dent his popularity – his approval ratings stand at around 33 percent, according to the Taipei-based Global Views Survey Research Center.

Meanwhile, critics say Ma has made a dangerous concession by embracing Beijing's cherished "one China" principle.

One is Parris Chang, a former official in the pro-independence government. In an opinion piece last week for the Wall Street Journal, Mr. Chang warned that Beijing was using time-honored "divide and conquer" tactics to pit Taiwanese against each other.

"The best solution is for Taiwanese politicians – and voters – to understand the game [President Hu Jintao] and Beijing are playing," Chang wrote. "Otherwise, the island may find itself trapped in the cage of 'one China' before anyone realizes exactly how it's reached that point."