FOREIGN AFFAIRS by Jeffry Babb News Weekly
Cross-strait ties remain Taiwan's biggest challenge
, December 6, 2014
Taiwan is a small island, half the size of Tasmania, with a population of 23 million, about the same as Australia.
This island, home to some of the world’s most successful high-tech companies, must contend with the People’s Republic of China, which has a population of over 1.3 billion and occupies an area making it the world’s fourth most extensive country.
Coming to terms with this not-so-gentle giant is the most persistent problem in Taiwan politics. Former president Chen Shui-bian was not a favourite with the Beijing authorities. His party, the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), does not want closer ties with China.
The DPP’s Chen was succeeded by President Ma Ying-jeou of the Kuomintang (KMT). Ma is a former mayor of Taipei City, the island’s capital. Ma was elected President with a healthy majority and was re-elected handily for a second term. His approval ratings, however, are in single digits. While it is generally acknowledged that Ma is a clean politician, many doubt his political skills.
Ma has promoted closer ties with China on the basis of what is known as the “1992 consensus”. This agreement, reached in previous negotiations, acknowledges that there is one China, with the two sides of course having differing interpretations as to the government of China.
China and Taiwan took the opportunity to meet at the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) leaders’ conference held in Beijing in November this year. Taiwan’s Minister for the Mainland Affairs Council, Wang Yu-chi, who handles relations between Taiwan and China, said that Taipei will continue pursuing peaceful and stable cross-strait ties based on the 1992 consensus of one China with respective interpretations. That is, there is only one China, but each side is free to interpret what that means.
Taiwan remains hopeful that one day its president will be invited to APEC. This year, as usual, China accepted Taiwan’s request to send a high-ranking former official, in this case Vincent Siew, a former Vice-President.
While there is no doubting Siew’s abilities, it is something of a put down that Taiwan is prevented from sending its highest-ranking official due to pressure from Beijing. When APEC was being formed, it was deliberately structured as a meeting of economies, rather than nations, with the intention that Taiwan would be a member.
“Over the last six years, Taipei and Beijing have significantly advanced bilateral relations on the back of the 1992 consensus of one China with respective interpretations,” Minister Wang said after his meeting with Zuang Zhijun, director of the Beijing-based Taiwan Affairs Office, which handles relations with Taiwan.
China’s President Xi Jinping and Taiwan’s former Vice-President Vincent Siew were photographed shaking hands as they met on the sidelines of the APEC leaders’ conference. Taiwan’s Siew suggested that China and Taiwan should assist each other while participating in regional economic groupings, especially the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP).
Both sides are looking towards the end of President Ma’s term in May 2016. Ma has been a strong supporter of developing cross-strait ties. No-one is quite sure what would happen if the DPP were to regain power.
Ma is a graduate of the Harvard Law School, and has the reputation of being “Mr Clean” because he hates corruption. He is, however, frequently criticised for being “too intellectual”, for not being adept at playing politics, and for filling his administration with scholars who are out of touch with the common man. By contrast, Wang Jin-ping, the speaker of the Legislature, Taiwan’s single-chamber parliament, is very politically adept and is a very powerful man because of it.
Taiwan and China have made good progress during the six years of Ma’s administration. Millions of Chinese tourists visit Taiwan every year. The sabre-rattling that occurred from time to time when the DPP’s Chen Shui-bian was in power is a thing of the past. Developing policies that are mutually beneficial can help cement public support. All the same, a great many people in Taiwan still need to be convinced that cosying up to their giant neighbour is a sound policy.
Not that Taiwan and China agree on everything. President Ma supported the protesters in the “Occupy Central” movement in Hong Kong, who wanted more democracy for Hong Kong. This annoyed Beijing.
One must say that Taiwan is committed to democratic practices and outcomes. Certainly, things happen in Taiwan that an Australian would regard as odd; but Taiwan is a shining light in Asia for its smooth transition from dictatorship to democracy.
China is currently embroiled in a purge of corrupt elements in the ruling Communist Party. No-one is sure what the end result will be. Will it be a more humane form of communism, or a tighter grip on power? Democracy seems out of reach for now.
Jeffry Babb is a Melbourne-based writer, who for many years worked as a journalist in Taiwan.