Jun 13, 2008 | 20:20 GMT

7 mins read

China, Taiwan: Cross-Strait Accords and Taiwan's Interests

Fan Jiwen/ChinaFotoPress/GettyImages
China and Taiwan signed agreements June 13 expanding tourism services and formalizing direct weekend charter flights across the Taiwan Strait. The agreements are part of a broader package of cross-Strait cooperation Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou has promised to work toward in the early part of his term. The rush in cross-Strait activity after a decade of strained relations is less a reversal of Taiwan's long-standing practice of political autonomy than a shift in the way Taipei deals with Beijing as Taiwan continues to promote its own interests.
China and Taiwan inked an agreement in Beijing on June 13 that will increase tourism and formalize regular weekend charter flights across the Taiwan Strait. The deal, signed for Taiwan by Straits Exchange Foundation (SEF) Chairman Chiang Pin-kung and for China by Association for Relations Across the Taiwan Straits (ARATS) Chairman Chen Yunlin, is one of several cooperative initiatives proposed by Taiwan's new president, Ma Ying-jeou. These also involve additional travel and tourism openings and greater economic interaction. Adding to the atmosphere of goodwill, in his inaugural address Ma also pledged Taiwan would stop trying to buy allies and urged Beijing to end its efforts to strip Taipei of the few remaining countries that recognize Taiwan. Ma's efforts to smooth over ties with Beijing have received criticism from the now-opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) in Taiwan. He also has received subtle, but no less vocal, criticism from elements in the United States that argue he is moving Taiwan dangerously close to Beijing, turning his back on the United States. These critics also argue that continued close ties between Taipei and Beijing could ultimately increase Chinese power and threaten U.S. interests in the Asia-Pacific region. Highlighting these incipient tensions, Taiwanese and U.S. media have focused on the alleged delay of U.S. military sales to Taiwan. According to the reports, the U.S. State Department is holding up the process by not passing on the requests to Congress for budgetary approval. The timing of the accusations coincides with comments by the outgoing Taiwanese semiofficial representative to the United States, Joseph Wu, who headed the Taipei Economic and Cultural Representative Office (TECRO) in Washington for the past year. Wu — the first native Taiwanese to hold the post — has urged Washington to sell F-16s to Taiwan, a decision Washington has left hanging for several years. Wu's comments have been echoed by persons with political and security interests — such as defense contractors — in the United States who accuse the State Department and the Bush administration of stalling and appeasing China at the expense of Taiwanese security. In addition, they and opposition elements in Taiwan accuse Ma of complicity in the delay of the arms sales, suggesting he is also willing to sacrifice Taiwanese security at the expense of his China policy. The defense delay in question includes the sale of helicopters, submarines and air defense batteries to Taiwan, which the United States tentatively approved in 2001 but which has faced years of delay in Taiwan as its own legislature refused to pass the budget authorizing the purchases. Taiwan has finally cleared its own budgetary hurdles. But with the transition of power from the DPP to the Kuomintang (KMT) and Ma's intensive diplomatic initiative with mainland China, Taipei and Washington have agreed to delay the final approval process in the United States to avoid undermining the diplomatic processes. The delay in the sale does not fundamentally alter or place Taiwan at some new level of risk from Chinese aggression, though some are concerned it gives the impression that Washington is leaving Taiwan to the Chinese and that Ma is willingly being left. But this is a misleading understanding of Ma's China policy. Far from being "pro-China," as he has been characterized, Ma is seeking to preserve Taiwan's de facto independence and increase its economic and political connections globally, just as his predecessor Chen Shui-bian strove to do. But whereas Chen focused on enhancing Taiwanese nationalism and took a more confrontational approach toward China, Ma is attempting a more accommodating approach. Chen is following in the footsteps of his predecessor, Lee Teng-hui. During the end of his term in office, Lee promoted the idea of mainland China as an independent state — no longer claiming Taiwanese control of all the mainland — and began building up the idea of Taiwanese national pride. Despite their differences in party background, the Chen-Ma transition is in some ways analogous to the transition between former Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi and his successors Shinzo Abe and Yasuo Fukuda. Koizumi used his term in office to redefine the Japanese sense of nationalism at the expense of public relations with China, though not at the expense of economic relations with the mainland. Koizumi's successor, Abe (who was followed by Fukuda), quickly "reversed" course and opened a friendly dialogue with Beijing. The shift did not erase the domestic groundwork laid by Koizumi, nor did it fundamentally alter the balance of power or realities of Japan's interests and concerns in the region — it simply refocused the overt international-relations aspect. Taiwan's transition to Ma, though not necessarily as coordinated as the Japanese example, nevertheless represents a similar public shift in posture while not necessarily ignoring the underlying interest and concerns of the state or altering the general direction of national development. Despite his political critics' assertions, Ma is no more going to hand over the keys to Taipei to the Chinese than Chen was going to formally declare independence. The overall reality of security and economic relations and domestic politics just does not allow that. Rather, Ma seeks to use China's interest in the perception of better relations and desire to see Taipei back down from threats of declaring independence to gain even more political and economic space for Taiwan internationally. Following the adage of catching more flies with honey than vinegar, Ma is looking to exploit China's position and his own "reversal" of Taiwanese policy to get China to agree with less ambitious Taiwanese goals, such as greater representation in international bodies like the World Health Organization and an end to the dollar diplomacy that has seen both China and Taiwan throw around millions in order to try to "buy" allies — a game Taiwan ultimately cannot win. By reducing tensions with China, Ma also hopes to rebuild Taiwan's image as a good investment target, particularly as Middle Eastern investors are looking for places to park their petrodollars. Ma is not ignoring more strategic issues either. It was his own KMT that delayed the purchase of U.S. arms in the first place, though it now has released the budget for the sale. In addition, Ma made it clear publicly that a peace accord with the mainland cannot occur until the issue of China's coastal missile batteries is addresses. Rather than argue, Beijing suggested the missiles could be a topic of discussion; something they never really offered Chen. Ma also is strengthening Taiwan's ties with the United States and Japan, seeking both security and economic benefits from the relationship. Like Chen before him, Ma is constrained by Taiwan's geographic position, strategic situation and economic realities. While he is making a strong public showing about improving ties with the mainland, he is no freer than Chen was to fundamentally alter Taiwan's status or position. Chen was not going to declare independence; Ma is not going to declare Taiwan a province of China. But, at least in the near term, Ma will use the perception of change to get as much out of mainland China as possible, and Beijing will play along, hoping that closer economic and social ties will dissuade Taiwan's drift in the future away from the mainland.

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