No consulates yet, but China and Taiwan opt for the next best thing

China and Taiwan are set to mark five years of improving ties with de facto consulates. If they are approved, they will represent the highest-level presence by either country.  

First came the historic handshakes. Then the first scheduled flights. Mass tourism followed, and investment chased that. The landmarks that took China-Taiwan relations from zero to today’s much more open relationship in five years are now leading to a new one: de facto consulates.

The move to set up representative offices, despite decades of severed diplomacy and strong mutual distrust before 2008, will make life easier for the millions of tourists and investors who hop across the 99-mile wide Taiwan Strait from China to Taiwan. De facto consulates also would be the highest-level official presence by one side on the other.

“Cross-Strait ties are getting closer and closer, so it’s good to keep up with the current momentum,” says Li Peng, Taiwan Research Institute assistant director at Xiamen University in China. “For the public, these offices will be a good way to protect their legal rights. I think the wishes of people on both sides have been given priority.”

On April 11, Taiwan’s cabinet sent parliament a draft law allowing Beijing to set up a representative office on the island. The draft follows conceptual agreement last year by negotiators from both sides after lobbying by China. Taiwan’s China-sympathetic ruling party also controls parliament, meaning all but sure passage of the draft.

Scopes of duties have yet to be decided, but analysts expect the offices to enforce investor protection rules and sort out legal issues involving travelers.

“The absence of an official presence hampers the ability of handling accidents, deaths, lost passports, and other problems that occur on an almost daily basis,” says Bonnie Glaser, a senior fellow with the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Staff members could also smooth business deals and set up high-level visits, she adds.

About 1 million Taiwanese live in China, where they have long groused about lack of homeland support in business disputes. Last year, 2.58 million mainland Chinese visited Taiwan, making accidents and small disputes increasingly common. Two-way trade also reached $121.6 billion in 2012, with China as Taiwan’s top trading partner.

Taiwan and China had virtually no relations from the Chinese civil war of the 1940s through 2008. China had advocated reunification and threatened to use force if peaceful means failed. That tension led Taiwan to ban official contact. Then in 2008, Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou and his counterparts in Beijing set aside political issues to establish economic ties.

But as the two sides still do not recognize each other diplomatically, setup of representative offices requires answering sticky questions: whether to fly official flags, how to reduce the risk of espionage, and whether to follow international diplomacy protocol, such as immunity for the chief representative, in line with world standards – or work out a new list of rules.

Image-conscious Beijing, which frowns on political dissent, also may fret about its office being the target of protests by anti-China groups that are allowed freedom of speech in democratic Taiwan.

Its office in Taipei would be an “instant magnet” for groups pushing human rights in China or more freedom for Tibet, for example, says Sean King, senior vice president with the political consulting firm Park Strategies in New York.

“I can give you more than 100 details that need to be cleared out before the office can be set up,” adds Alexander Huang, strategic studies professor at Tamkang University in Taiwan.

The island’s main opposition party, which advocates a more cautious relationship with China given old hostilities, worries that the new offices would be used to enforce Beijing’s goal of uniting both sides under a single flag even as many Taiwanese prefer self-rule.

“It would be harder for Taiwan to break away and claim we are not under China’s jurisdiction,” says Joseph Wu, policy committee executive director with the opposition Democratic Progressive Party. “We need to clear the doubt that Taiwan is not part of China.”

It’s unclear whether the opposition would continue, call off, or change the government’s engagement with Beijing if it won the next presidential election in 2016.

The government’s China policymaking body says 70 percent of Taiwanese support the plan. “Therefore, to handle today’s cross-Strait interaction and the trend of close contact between people, as well as to assist people on both sides, the government will advance this as one of its top policy priorities,” that body, the Mainland Affairs Council, said in a statement on Saturday.

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