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.

A landmark meeting Saturday between Taiwan's vice president-elect and China's president Hu Jintao has raised hopes for the first cross-strait talks in a decade. But analysts say many pitfalls lie ahead – and any breakthrough likely to be economic, not political.

"It [was] an ice-breaking meeting, not an ice-melting one," said Richard Bush, a cross-strait relations expert at the Brookings Institution in Washington.

The meeting came just three weeks after the Kuomintang's (KMT) Ma Ying-jeou and running mate Vincent Siew won in a landslide victory on a platform promising cross-strait deténte.

One question had been whether China would engage Mr. Ma's government. Now, the answer is a clear "yes." By agreeing to meet Mr. Siew at the annual Boao Forum for Asia on Saturday, Mr. Hu signaled China's willingness to enter into dialogue with Taiwan's new government after eight years of "silent treatment."

Now begins a delicate diplomatic courtship – however awkward. When Siew stepped off his plane, a top Chinese official in charge of Taiwan affairs greeted him with open arms, reaching out for a hug. Siew responded stiffly, trying to pull back to a more formal handshake.

That captured the incoming government's ambivalence toward Beijing. They want to establish cordial ties without getting too close. Despite mutual support for better economic ties, the two differ on Taiwan's status. Beijing sees it as a part of Chinese territory awaiting unification; Ma and Siew think of "The Republic of China" (its formal name) as a sovereign state.

Still, the meeting signals a start to a more pragmatic chapter in those relations. "It suggests that there's enough goodwill on both sides to fudge difficult issues, and for the relationship to be put on a more even keel," said Steve Tsang, director of the Taiwan Studies Program at Oxford University.

Analysts expect Ma, who is set to take office May 20, to successfully push through much of his cross-strait economic agenda. That includes direct flights to China, permitting more Chinese tourists, and a relaxation of China-bound investment caps on businesses. He also wants a return to semiofficial cross-strait talks based on the "1992 consensus." That formula sees both sides recognizing the notion of one China, and agreeing to disagree on what exactly that means.

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."

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.

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