Building bridges, or a bridge too far?

The meeting between Ma Ying-jeou and Xi Jinping built a bridge to reconciliation, but will future Taiwanese leaders be willing to cross it?

Zhiqun Zhu

Government and governance, International relations, National security | East Asia

26 November 2015

Both Taiwan and China need to be pragmatic if they want to build lasting peace and prosperity across the Taiwan Strait, writes Zhiqun Zhu.

The November summit between Taiwan’s leader, Ma Ying-jeou, and Mainland China’s Xi Jinping sparked great international interest, even though nothing dramatic resulted from it.

The international media covered the carefully choreographed event in a largely positive light. That coverage wasn’t surprising as the meeting was a great leap forward in cross-Taiwan Strait relations, despite a small but loud voice of opposition in Taiwan. Polls show even some pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) supporters believe the meeting will contribute to improving cross-strait relations. A new bridge to reconciliation and peace has been built, although it is uncertain whether future leaders, especially from Taiwan, are willing to cross it.

Many Taiwanese worry that the island is becoming increasingly close to the Mainland economically, which might lead to eventual political reunion. They fear this over-dependence on the Mainland will deny Taiwanese options for the future, including independence.

As DPP presidential candidate Tsai Ing-wen said, Taiwan’s young generation considers independence a natural part of life. Taiwanese students staged the high-profile Sunflower Movement in Taipei and occupied the legislature in Spring 2014 to protest against Taiwan’s closer economic ties with the Mainland, which was expedited during Ma’s second term without much public debate. Beijing seems powerless in the face of the growing trend among Taiwanese to identify themselves as Taiwanese only, not Chinese.

The DPP and its supporters’ knee-jerk opposition to the Xi-Ma meeting and to the Chinese government reflects their deep-rooted angst about Taiwan’s future being determined by Beijing. It is Beijing’s job to allay such worries and narrow the gap between the two sides. After the historic Singapore summit, many wonder what might happen next.

More on this: "Beijing may leave the door open for modifying the ‘one country, two systems’ formula of reunification to give Taiwan greater political recognition."
The Mainland can take several concrete steps to soften its image among the Taiwanese. First of all, Beijing should consider removing or reducing missiles deployed in Fujian Province facing Taiwan. This will not affect the People’s Liberation Army’s overall strategy but will be a tremendous sign of goodwill to the Taiwanese. Ma already expressed dissatisfaction with Xi’s claim during the meeting that the missiles were not targeted at Taiwan. A friendly gesture like this from Beijing is worth thousands of words and is more powerful than the missiles themselves.

Secondly, the Mainland should map out specific plans about how to help Taiwan enjoy more international space and participate in international organisations in a meaningful way acceptable to both sides. This includes Taiwan’s participation in regional integration process such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP). Beijing should also welcome Taiwan’s membership in the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB).

The Taiwanese society must achieve a consensus on what is in Taiwan’s best interest. When neither unification nor independence is feasible, pragmatism must prevail. The Xi-Ma summit is significant for cross-strait relations and peace and stability in the Asia-Pacific. It has opened a new chapter in Taipei-Beijing relations. The DPP must have the wisdom and courage to seize the opportunity before it slips by. If the 1992 consensus is objectionable to the DPP, what can it propose that will be agreeable to both Beijing and Washington?

Finally, the United States remains a crucial external player affecting the future of cross-strait relations. How the US will react to the 2016 Taiwan elections and how it will respond to the new developments in Taipei-Beijing interactions will shape the future trajectory of cross-strait relations as well as US-China relations. Other countries in the region, especially Japan, may also have mixed feelings towards improved Taiwan-China relations. Given the complicated international and regional environment, the Taiwan Strait will not always be tranquil.

Ma’s policy of “no unification, no independence, and no use of force” is probably the most practical approach now for both sides to handle the complex cross-strait relations. For the Mainland, how to win the hearts and minds of the Taiwanese remains the biggest challenge. Beijing should get used to Taiwan’s robust and often boisterous democracy, where people are not easily cowed.

For Taiwan, the challenge is to maximize Taiwan’s interests while taking advantage of the Mainland’s rapid reemergence as a great power. It is imprudent and unnecessary to provoke Beijing by pushing for formal Taiwanese independence. Unification is highly idealistic and de jure independence remains a difficult dream. Both Taipei and Beijing need to be realistic and pragmatic to stay engaged and build lasting peace and prosperity across the Taiwan Strait.

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