A bit of harmony in a China-Taiwan conclave

In a historic first meeting of official representatives, China and Taiwan appear to warm up ties despite the mainland's claim to the island nation. Is this a new Beijing seeking a peaceful rise?

AP Photo
Wang Yu-chi, head of Taiwan's Mainland Affairs Council, left, and Zhang Zhijun, director of China's Taiwan Affairs Office, right, pose before their meeting in Nanjing, China, Feb. 11.

Perhaps because of their common heritage based on Confucius’s teachings, Taiwan and China took a big step Tuesday toward heeding the ancient sage’s advice about seeking harmony. The two countries held their first official talks – despite China’s claim to the island nation and a lingering threat to take it by force.

The visit by a top Taiwanese envoy ends a lapse of 65 years in diplomatic ties and is a natural step for both countries. They have doubled their cross-strait trade over the past decade and simply need better ways to communicate.

If China’s intent is to now shelve its claim to Taiwan for the foreseeable future – as previous leaders wisely did – then this breakthrough could signal a shift by Beijing to lessen its belligerence toward its Asian neighbors. Yet by not being a democracy with transparent motives – as Taiwan is – China’s real strategy in cozying up to the self-governing island remains a mystery.

Just 19 years ago, China was lobbing missiles near Taiwan, known officially as the Republic of China. Back then, Taiwan was holding its first democratic presidential election and leaning toward an official declaration of its de facto independence. The United States had to send two aircraft carriers into the area as a warning to China.

Since then, Taiwan has backed off declaring independence, a move that would have ended official ambiguity about its status. Since 2008, President Ma Ying-jeou has worked hard to maintain peace while welcoming millions of Chinese tourists and encouraging Taiwanese investment in the mainland. Until China becomes democratic – or at least stops squeezing the remaining democracy out of Hong Kong – the people of Taiwan are wary of assimilating with an authoritarian regime. They are also right to worry about the fact that China still points hundreds of missiles at their small country.

Tuesday’s meeting was free of flags, official names, or anything that might signify China recognizes Taiwan’s sovereignty. Still, it could now be more difficult for China to keep blocking Taiwan’s membership in international bodies.

What China may be seeking is to simply help Mr. Ma’s Nationalist party, the Kuomintang or KMT, win the next presidential election in 2016. Beijing does not want pro-independence politicians to win as they did in the 1990s. If that is all China seeks, then perhaps the Asian giant is truly fulfilling its pledge of a “peaceful rise” as a regional power.

Unofficial ties between Taiwan and China began more than two decades ago. A prominent Hong Kong industrialist, Sze Chi-ching, helped arrange a secret meeting in Beijing between a leader of the KMT and then-Communist Party head Jiang Zemin. Dr. Sze, known as “the modern Confucian businessman” and an expert in Chinese calligraphy, has long sought to spread Confucian values of how to create a harmonious society. On Tuesday, his hope of replacing confrontation with dialogue took a big leap at a historic meeting in the mainland city of Nanjing.

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