Welcome thaw for China and Taiwan

Taiwan has relied heavily on US presidential support for its independent existence in a “one China” world, but recent steps toward warmer cross-Strait relations may mean Taiwan will need to depend less on Barack Obama when he’s president. Earlier this month, China’s Chen Yun-lin became the highest-ranking Chinese official to visit the island since Chiang Kai-shek fled the mainland in 1949. Chen, the Chairman of the Association for Relations Across the Taiwan Straits (ARATS), was in Taipei for a five-day visit that marked a major diplomatic thaw after eight years of tension during the presidency of independence-minded Chen Shui-bien. The meeting featured four China-Taiwan agreements providing for direct air, shipping, and postal links, and food safety.

For decades, Beijing sought direct shipping, telecommunications, postal service, and travel across the Taiwan Strait as a route to eventual reunification. Despite burgeoning investment in China, Taipei demurred, fearing Beijing would gain additional leverage over its future. Direct links were put off interminably because the mere fact of negotiating them involves symbols of sovereignty over Taiwan, which Beijing insisted on and Taipei refused to relinquish. Taiwan’s President Ma Ying-jeou offered to move the process forward after taking office in May, and there has been a palpable reduction in paranoia about sovereignty on both sides.

As the ARATS chairman’s recent visit shows, we are witnessing a maturing relationship in which the antagonists have agreed to put aside the issue that has divided them for 60 years in favour of getting practical benefits that they want.

Beijing’s leaders have long acted on the premise that China can bring Taiwan back to the motherland with a gentle but powerful economic embrace that will eventually convince the people of Taiwan where their interests lie. This has been complemented by the never-abandoned threat to take the “renegade province” back by force if Taipei declares independence. Achieving long-sought direct communications across the Taiwan Strait is a symbolic triumph for China.

Taiwan reaps benefits with big reductions in costs of trade, and comfort that investments in China are safer than before. Arguably, none of this narrows the political gulf that has persisted for generations. Taipei has gained no leverage to persuade Beijing to withdraw its missiles aimed at Taiwan. Taipei’s efforts to participate in international organisations will remain Beijing’s choice to thwart.

Most Taiwanese would rather believe that their de facto independence is more secure now that Beijing’s senior ARATS official came to Taiwan to sign cooperation agreements and call on the president. The real significance of these historic direct links agreements is that it is becoming less urgent for both China and Taiwan to pursue political goals in their relationship.

Instead, we might be witnessing the beginning of an era of cross-strait relations conducted in much the way that normal diplomatic relationships are conducted. Perhaps the era of outrage — Beijing demanding capitulation and Taipei screaming de jure independence — will

be overtaken by what could be a continuing search for the benefits of increased inter-dependence. — The Christian Science Monitor