China gave a last-minute show of support for direct links with Taiwan's outlying islands yesterday that has many here surprised, if skeptical. On Jan. 1, Taiwan will open the door by allowing trade, transport, and post links to be legally established for the first time. The proposal regulates exchanges only between China's Fujian province and the tiny Taiwanese islands of Kinmen and Matsu, off Fujian's coast. Until yesterday, China had been mute on Taiwan's plans, except for pressing for more extensive contacts.
Yet few think it's a signal that China is ready to deal with Taiwan on equal ground. Rather, it's a sign that they are craving part of the limelight. At such a symbolic moment, "they don't want it to be Taiwan's show," says Liu Pi-jong, an international relations professor at Soochow University and a negotiation strategist.
"The move really surprised me. The question now is, what is the next step," says Mr. Liu.
The links are just the latest in a salvo of goodwill gestures from Taiwan's President Chen Shui-bian to China. Since he was elected in March, Mr. Chen has fought an uphill battle. China is leery of him because his Democratic Progressive Party historically supports Taiwan's independence. In dealing with Chen, China has taken what it calls a "wait and see" approach, to monitor his words and actions. But Chen has toned down his talk of independence, even mentioning handling the question of "one China" in his inauguration speech.
Just days after President Chen was elected, Taiwan's legislature passed regulations which allowed for the opening up of the three small links. Earlier this month, the government announced it was going to open its doors, even if China didn't reciprocate.
Taiwan's overture is a robustly symbolic one - the islands of Kinmen and Matsu are still riddled with bomb shelters and have stood as Taiwan's frontline against China since the Nationalist Army retreated to Taiwan from the Communist takeover more than 50 years ago. But China actually preceded Taiwan in opening up unilateral direct links between the mainland and Taiwan's outlying islands. Taiwan, which has long viewed security as too much of a concern to open up direct links in the past, has employed a "don't ask, don't tell" approach to small amounts of illegal trade. Taiwan's businesspeople have already poured some $40 billion into the mainland. But under the current system, any investment, cargo, or people must transit through a different country or territory, such as Hong Kong or Macau, before landing in Taiwan.
With the three-links plan just days from implementation, Kinmen resident and lawmaker Chen Ching-pao points out that as long as China feels like it's in control, it may be grudgingly offering some approval.
China has already said that its ports will not be open to receive any visitors on Jan. 1, but it also said it would accept one trip of some 500 religious worshippers from Taiwan - originally scheduled to leave on Jan. 1 - one day later.
Following China's refusal of a high-profile trip of lawmakers this week, it was unclear whether others will be allowed to cross the Taiwan Strait from Kinmen to Xiamen, one of the two ports in southeastern China, with the other side's approval. Taiwan officials say they have received thousands of applications from individuals requesting to travel to China. Taiwan has limited the number of tourists who can visit Kinmen and Matsu each day, and restricted stays to seven days.
Taiwan's officials have tried to remain upbeat about all the last-minute snags.
Tsai Ing-wen, chairwoman of Taiwan's Mainland Affairs Council, told lawmakers that opposition to the policy, just like "labor pains before birth," was inevitable. But opposition lawmakers, much like China, have questioned why Taiwan has made the move before it sat down to negotiate the details with China.
One cross-strait official says there is more to China's delayed response than meets the eye. "Behind the cool reaction is a very sophisticated calculation," says Mainland Affairs Council vice chairman Lin Chong-pin.
Mr. Lin says that while China was initially startled by Chen's narrow victory, it has since done its homework and now is finding some very efficient ways of making Chen look unpopular, not only in China, but in Taiwan as well.
China had made efforts to lure support from Taiwan's lawmakers, Lin says. Just recently the secretary-general of the Nationalist Kuomintang Party, Wu Po-hsiung, made a trip to China to meet with Communist officials, the first such meeting between the two parties since the KMT was beaten in the civil war in China.
China hopes, Lin says, to use its improved relations with Taiwan's lawmakers to undermine Chen's weak mandate. Elected with only 39 percent of the popular vote, Chen faces a majority-led KMT legislature.
"It's a lot cheaper than using M-9 missiles," Lin says.
Given China's interest in comprehensive links, Ruan Ming, a longtime cross-strait analyst, says that in the end, China would see the January event as a means to an end. "There really is no reason for China to refuse [the small three links]," Mr. Ruan says.
Deputy secretary of Taiwan's Straits Exchange Foundation Yen Wan-ching says China's response is positive "and practical, but this type of response is still not enough, and what is needed is that both sides get back to the negotiation table." The SEF and China's Association for Relations Across the Taiwan Straits are the semiofficial vehicles of cross-strait dialogue between Taiwan and China.
China's U-turn in response to the opening of direct links was a sign that China cannot resist this sort of an opportunity. "Its something that benefits people on both sides," Yen says.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society