A historic meeting between officials from Taiwan and the mainland, though lacking concrete outcomes, marks an important step toward normalizing relations
“Nanjing is closer to Taipei than to Beijing,” said Zhang Zhijun, director of the mainland’s Taiwan Affairs Office in a historic meeting with his counterpart, Taiwan’s Mainland Affairs Council Minister Wang Yu-chi on February 11. The meeting was the first ever official government-to-government contact between the two sides since the end of the Chinese Civil War in 1949, when the former Nationalist government fled to Taiwan.
Zhang is not only referring to the geographic distance between a Taiwanese and mainland city, but also the historical and cultural ties that still link the Republic of China (ROC), Taiwan’s official name, and the city of Nanjing, China’s capital under the Kuomintang (KMT), or the Nationalist Party before it retreated to Taiwan after losing the Chinese Civil War in 1949.
During the meeting, both sides agreed to “create a formal dialog mechanism” between the mainland’s Taiwan Affairs Office and Taiwan’s Mainland Affairs Council. Zhang also accepted Wang’s invitation to visit Taiwan, a trip which could be made as early as April, while Taiwan proposed a second visit by Wang to the mainland later in 2014. It is expected that such interactions could become routine, with hints of official representative offices in both territories in the next decade or so.
While the meeting was widely reported as a “milestone” in the history of relations across the Taiwan Strait, like many interactions between Beijing and Taipei, its significance is more symbolic.
In the past, dialog across the Strait has been carried out by two semi-official organizations imbued with the power to negotiate on behalf of the two governments, the mainland-based Association for Relations Across the Taiwan Straits (ARATS) and its Taiwanese counterpart the Straits Exchange Foundation (SEF), both of which were set up in the 1990s. Meetings between politicians from both sides are typically conducted at party level - between the KMT and the Communist Party of China – a problem, given that Taiwan’s voters have previously placed the KMT’s rival party in power, which typically results in a diplomatic freeze.
Beijing has refused to recognize the ROC’s government on Taiwan, insisting that the two sides should reach unification under Beijing’s leadership, while Taipei has insisted that dialog between the two sides should only be conducted on “equal footing.”
These semantic issues have persisted even though economic ties have greatly improved since the KMT’s Ma Ying-jeou won the Taiwanese election in 2008. The Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement, a landmark pact widely seen as a bold step towards reconciliation, has also been reached between ARATS and SET, a move which would typically only result from direct government-to-government negotiations.
The issue of how Taiwanese officials should be addressed has become increasingly thorny as the two sides have stepped up engagement. For example, in mid-January, Lung Ying-tai, Taiwan’s cultural chief, responded to an unofficial invitation from Cai Wu, Beijing’s Cultural Minister, to visit the mainland “under a proper title,” that she would only visit the mainland as “Minister Lung.” The Communist Party, its media organs and the Chinese government follow a strict policy of never referring to Taiwanese leaders by their official titles, which is considered to legitimize the government in Taipei -- tantamount to acknowledging Taiwanese sovereignty.
This time around, the fact that Wang was received in his official capacity and addressed by his official title by his counterpart Zhang was seen as a “breakthrough” in Taiwan, a recognition of the existence of its system of government if not an explicit acknowledgment of sovereignty.
Beijing also appears to have made concessions on some minor issues. For example, the mainland has finally agreed to work to find a solution to Taipei’s request for family visits for Taiwanese imprisoned on the mainland, an issue previously deemed to be a consular affair which could only be resolved by two sovereign states.
The two sides also talked about creating a “more convenient” environment for Taiwanese journalists working in China, and the issue of Taiwan’s bid to join international trade organizations such as the US-led Trans-Pacific Partnership was also raised during the meeting.
But a major setback for Taiwan is that Beijing has ruled out the possibility of arranging a meeting between Ma Ying-jeou and China’s President Xi Jinping at this year’s APEC summit, to be held in Beijing in November.
Ma explicitly expressed his intension to meet Xi at the 2014 APEC summit in a December 2013 interview with Yazhou Zhoukan, a Hong Kong-based periodical. Ma explained that the APEC Economic Leaders’ Meeting allows for a great deal of political flexibility, meaning he could meet Xi as “an economic leader.” To meet the leader of the mainland under any other context would require him to be addressed as “president of the ROC,” as opposed to “chairman of the ruling Kuomintang,” as the mainland has proposed.
Taiwan’s leaders are barred from APEC summits due to objections from Beijing, which claims sovereignty over the island, and are represented instead by “senior economic leaders.”
The government-to-government talks between Wang and Zhang have led many observers to suspect that the stage was being set for a top-level meeting between the two leaders. But Wang Yu-chi told the media after returning to Taiwan on February 14 that Zhang had officially declined Taipei’s request for such a meeting. Continuing to class relations across the Taiwan Strait as “a domestic issue,” Beijing refuses to arrange such meetings at international events.
Despite this setback, Ma Ying-jeou praised the “extraordinary significance” of the meeting, according to spokeswoman Garfie Li, who said in a press conference held on February 16 that Ma sees the meeting as “exemplifying how the two sides do not deny each other’s authority to govern.”
In recent months, Ma has been advocating the concept of “non-recognition of sovereignty” and “mutual nondenial of jurisdiction” as a possible approach to push forward cross-straits ties, remarks to which Beijing has made no official response.
Compared to the enthusiasm shown in the Taiwanese official media over the meeting, Beijing seems to have tried to keep a low profile, as no press conference was arranged during the entire visit of Wang Yu-chi. State media coverage, while fulsome, held back from editorializing.
Although Beijing received Wang Yu-chi in his official capacity, redressing to the official titles of Taiwanese officials was now only limited to Taiwan’s Mainland Affairs Council, an indication that the mainland is not ready to recognize ROC sovereignty. During the meeting, Zhang also noted the new official communication mechanism “would not replace” existing quasi-government channels between the ARATS and SEF.
Analysts believe that unlike Taipei, which focuses more on symbolic developments, Beijing is more interested in political negotiations.
In contrast to the low-profile reporting on the meeting between Wang and Zhang, the mainland’s state media gives front coverage to the meeting between Xi Jinping and Lien Chan, honorary chairman of the KMT, who visited the mainland on February 17.
In a keynote speech made on February 18, President Xi Jinping said Beijing respects “Taiwanese compatriots’ choice of social system” and is willing to conduct negotiation “on equal footing” with Taipei under the “one China framework” in order to reach a “reasonable political settlement,” an unprecedented statement, as it was the first time Beijing dropped the insistence that unification can only be achieved under Beijing’s leadership.
According to the report of the Taipei-based United Daily News, Xi also raised the issue of possibly meeting Ma in the future, by asking Lien’s opinion on such a meeting. Analysts believe that Xi is more proactive on the Taiwan issue than his predecessors, and has tried to speed up negotiations.
In the 2013 APEC meeting, Chinese President Xi Jinping met Vincent Siew, Taiwan’s former vice-president, on the sidelines, where Xi stressed that the two sides should keep pushing for a political settlement and cannot “hand these problems down from generation and generation.”
It is reported that, while preparing for the meeting, Beijing proposed that the two sides sign a written accord. Taipei declined on the grounds that it was “premature” to do so at the first official meeting.
The request also reflects Beijing’s concern over perceived Taiwanese ambivalence towards political talks. Fearing backsliding if Ma’s unpopular government were to be voted out of power, the mainland is keen to secure written commitments.
Beijing’s concerns are well-founded. Many in Taiwan are wary of even the idea of unification and oppose any political talks with the mainland. Prior to Wang’s mainland trip, for example, Taiwan’s legislature adopted a resolution which stipulates that Wang may not sign any document or issue a joint statement of any kind that accepts or echoes Beijing’s claim of a “one China” framework.
With a variety of issues unsettled, there will be a lot of ground to make up if further progress is to be made. As Zhang Zhijun acknowledged during the meeting, “We must have some imagination to make a [real] breakthrough.”
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Badeling Pass | Beijing
Sep 2011 | Submitted by Brian Snelson
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