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Talking Peace Across the Taiwan Straits

Dr. Raviprasad Narayanan was Associate Fellow at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi.
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  • November 14, 2008

    If current developments are any indicator, the long road to economic integration on either side of the Taiwan Straits has commenced. In a first of its kind, a sixty member delegation led by Chen Yunlin, Chairman of the Association for Relations Across the Taiwan Straits (ARATS) visited Taiwan from November 3-7, 2008 to hold talks with his counterpart Chiang Pin-kung, Chairman of the Straits Exchange Foundation (SEF). ARATS and SEF are two non-governmental organisations authorised by China and Taiwan in the early 1990s to examine the entire gamut of cross-Strait relations. ARATS takes its brief from the Taiwan Office of the State Council in Beijing, while the SEF is guided by the Mainland Affairs Council, a cabinet level agency that deliberates policies towards the mainland in Taipei. Before his current designation as Chairman of ARATS, Chen Yunlin was heading the powerful Taiwan Office at the State Council.

    Four agreements were signed during the course of the contentious visit – on direct flights, direct sea transport, the postal services and food safety. With June 22, 2009 set as a date for starting direct passenger flights between the two sides, the air transport agreement, while falling short of an ‘open skies policy’, increases the number of chartered direct flights from 38 to 108 each week. Hong Kong and Macau will continue as transit points for passenger flights. By this agreement Taiwan hopes to attract tourists from the mainland on a regular basis. The agreement on food safety was necessitated by the ‘melamine incident’ in China that has led to a worldwide recall of dairy products and pet food produced on the mainland. The ‘melamine incident’ has made distributors and bakeries suffer huge losses in lost sales in Taiwan and there are proposals calling for the mainland to compensate for the losses incurred.

    According to the China Post published from Taipei, the Chairman of the SEF, Chiang pin-Kung portrayed the agreements as “getting the distance between the two sides of the Taiwan Strait ever closer not only substantially but also in form.” ARATS and SEF also agreed to have a systematic dialogue process every six months. Three agreements – on direct flights to the mainland, direct sea transport and direct mail, are expected to go into effect within six weeks after they are ratified by the Legislative Yuan in Taipei.

    During the course of a choreographed seven minute meeting at the Taipei Guest House, the President of Taiwan, Ma Ying-jeou told the Chairman of ARATS that “Beijing should give Taipei more Lebensraum (perhaps Ma Ying-jeou needs to find another expression, as this term did lead to grave historical crises seven decades ago in Europe) to manoeuvre in international relations.” The reasoning behind this statement is that Beijing should not place obstacles in Taiwan’s path as it seeks membership of international organisations such as the World Health Organisation (WHO). To deflect criticism that he is genuflecting towards Beijing, Ma Ying-jeou reiterated his “three no’s” policy towards China premised upon – “no independence”, “no unification” and “no war” and that “the people of Taiwan were alone to decide their future.” Speaking the language of peace and accommodation – in striking contrast to that of his predecessor – Ma Ying-jeou raised five points of a possible convergence of political vision. Quoted in the China Post, he said, the “the two sides of the strait should face the reality, shouldn't negate each other, should promote the well-being of the people, should proactively deal with disputes by peaceful means, and should expand bilateral cooperation.”

    The signing of the four agreements seemed to be the easier task as the ARATS Chairman and his entourage had to face the ire of opposition parties and organisations opposed to their five day visit. At a reception hosted at the Grand Formosa Regent Hotel by Wu Po-hsiung, Chairman of the ruling Kuomintang (KMT) party, the ARATS delegation was “sieged-in” by demonstrators opposed to their presence in Taipei as also those who feel that Ma Ying-jeou is taking Taiwan into politically indefensible territory by encouraging ties with Beijing which has deeply divided the polity and society in Taiwan. For the DPP, much demoralised after the drubbing in the polls which brought the KMT to power, the contentious issue of closer economic relations with China is politically loaded. The DPP’s charge of ‘concessions’ by the Ma Ying-jeou administration towards China has enthused its rank and file, which until recently was dejected by the corruption charges levelled against former President Chen Shui-bian and his immediate family. DPP lawmakers have even gone to the extent of asking Ma Ying-jeou to “end his life” and accuse him of having brought “shame” upon Taiwan by meeting Chen Yunlin. The chairwoman of the DPP, Tsai Ing-wen, accused Ma of “denigrating the dignity and downgrading the sovereignty of the Republic of China.” In his defence, Ma Ying-jeou justifies his policy of engaging Beijing as flowing from the 1992 consensus, which favoured dialogue between Taipei and Beijing and which was scripted by none other than former President Lee Teng-hui, an icon to many in Taiwan and much reviled in Beijing.

    With the ball rolling, the next meeting of ARATS and SEF in Beijing has drawn up a list of issues to focus upon – fighting organised crime, improving quarantine, investment protection, fisheries, educational exchanges and financial co-operation. The importance of financial co-operation has been necessitated by the global financial crisis, which has left in its wake the need for countries and entities of the region to work out mechanisms to protect themselves from its fallout. To conclude, while the pro-active policy of Ma Ying-jeou is yielding dividends to some segments of Taiwan’s polity and economy, the deep divisions resulting from his approach make it necessary for the current leadership to engage the legislature and wider civil society in a comprehensive manner to garner wider support for an ‘economic embrace’ with Beijing.