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Mainstream, Vol XLVIII, No 28, July 3, 2010

China-Taiwan Relations: A Comment

Saturday 10 July 2010, by Gunjan Singh

China since 1949 has claimed that Taiwan is not only an inalienable part but also an internal matter of the People’s Republic of China (PRC). But at the same time one sees that there exists a very strong dimension to the Taiwan affair. Since the 1980s there has been a major shift in this dynamics. After its democratisation in the 1980s it has clearly formed a very unique characteristic vis-à-vis China. These differences have been the cause of a number of clashes. Mainland China did show its discomfort and anger during the first election on the island. The relations went from bad to worse when the pro-independence faction gained prominence as Beijing has always asserted that Taiwan is an integral part of China. The last elections have changed this dynamics to a very large extent.

The 2008 election of Ma Yingjeou of the Kuomintang (KMT) as the President of Taiwan changed the dynamics of the Cross-Strait Relations. This was one democratic election which the Mainland welcomed as it ousted the pro-independence Democratic People’s Party (DPP) and elected the pro-unification KMT. Beijing had portrayed a lot of antagonism and hardline approach towards the DPP Government led by Chen Shuibian. Now that the KMT is back in power, which has historically been pro-reunification, the PRC finds it more comfortable to interact.

The first major success of the KMT in power has been the increase in the talks between the Strait Exchange Foundation (SEF) and Association for Relations Across the Taiwan Strait (ARATS). Both the organisations met after a long gap of almost 13 years and concluded a number of economic deals. There has been an increase in the level of Chinese investments in Taiwan in addition to the direct flights between the two. After a lull of almost 60 years both the sides are interacting and even discussing the formation of an economic trade zone. It is predicted that the Economic Cooperation Framework (ECFA) trade pact will be able to create a large number of employment avenues and also give impetus to the exports. Taiwan has already opened approximately 100 sectors in areas like manufacturing, services and public infrastructure projects. This has provided the mainland companies with investment avenues in automobiles, plastics, textiles, personal computers and handset manufacturing. There is urgency on the part of Ma to increase the level of economic interaction across the Strait. He has also been constantly arguing that it is easy to handle political isolation but an economic isolation will be more difficult to get through. In addition to this, Taipei was also allowed to participate in the World Health Assembly, something which the people of Taiwan were struggling to do till now. A concession which comes with the fact that Beijing also feels responsible to keep the KMT in its favour on the island as that helps it in strengthening its negotiating stance. This also helps in keeping the pro-independence lobby at bay.

THOUGH both sides are working towards improving the relationship at the economic level, there are still hiccups on the political front. China did boycott the inauguration of the World Games in Taiwan but it also did participate. Ma has been asserting that if the mainland is interested in taking forward the current situation there is an urgent need to remove the missiles facing the Taiwanese Island. Ma said that this is a major impediment in the relations as the island is constantly under a security threat. He has clearly stated that “The Taiwan Strait could be the beginning of a bigger conflict that involves the two superpowers of the world, that’s the reason why everybody is happy when we adopted the policy to ease that tension.” With this he added that this will definitely be ‘appreciated’ by the mainland. There are also statements by him which indicate that the relationship between both the sides is at a very important defining moment and the increasing interaction has helped Taipei feel comfortable.

There is a general unease in Taiwan due to the continuous increase in the number of missiles by Beijing. Ma has asserted: “It’s only when Taiwan is properly armed and defended that we have the confidence to make a deal with the mainland.” He has also stated that there is a need to work towards larger peace and stability in the East Asian region. It is a known fact that the two most problematic issues are the nuclearisation of North Korea and the continuing conflict across the Taiwan Strait.

Both the parties know that they have a lot to gain from a stable relationship. Both the economies are highly ingrained into each other and any conflict can lead to a major loss for both sides. The ongoing financial crisis has further complicated the situation and China needs to look at the investment opportunities and the market in Taiwan.

However, it will be very difficult for the PRC to justify any such move to the Chinese people till the Taiwan issue is completely solved. Taiwan is one of the most sensitive issues as far as mainland nationalism is concerned. In the recent past it has been observed that the PRC has been using nationalism in order to justify its stand. The missiles cannot be removed completely as a goodwill gesture as this will lead to problems for Beijing. Till date the PRC has been justifying the increase in the level of missiles by feeding on to the nationalism of its people. The removal of these missiles will indicate that the mainland has accepted the ongoing status quo as the end to the re-unification. This might lead to some discontent against the party. Even if the PRC wants to comfort its counterparts it will not be able to do so as this will jeopardise its stand. This may also make the PRC look weak, something which may backfire.

The normal course in the Taiwan-China relations has been based on status quo and in the near future it does not seem probable that this status quo will be changed. There are statements from the Mainland Affairs Council (MAC) that there is no timetable for starting the political talks between China and Taiwan. And that this might require a much longer time-frame. In spite of the warm relations, Ma has not felt comfortable with the idea of travelling to the mainland. Till a time comes when the top leadership of both sides decide to travel across the Strait, the situation will continue to remain the way it is.

In addition to this, the PRC is also wary of the ongoing alliance between Taiwan and the United States. The US has been a major supplier of weapons and arms to Taiwan and is also bound by the TRA to come to the defence of Taiwan in case of an attack by the mainland. With such a scenario Beijing will like to be fully prepared and in a position to defend itself. The PRC will have it in its consideration that if the DPP gains prominence again then there will be a major transformation in the existing scenario.

Gunjan Singh is a Research Assistant, Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi.

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