China and Taiwan have shelved political hostilities for the past five years to reach a series of trade and investment deals, improving overall relations. Now, China’s president has made a fresh bid for sensitive political talks with Taiwan. However, Taipei’s politically weakened leadership may be unable to deliver.
China has claimed sovereignty over self-ruled Taiwan for more than six decades, and this month Chinese President Xi Jinping told the island that the two sides must eventually discuss their old political differences. Xi made the comment to a Taiwanese envoy at a regional economic summit in Indonesia.
Leonard Chu, an honorary professor specializing in communication and China at National Chengchi University, in Taipei, said the pressure from China should be expected, as should resistance from Taiwan.
“Ever since Deng Xiaoping was still around, he was saying that we want Taiwan to be back and in a matter of time we have to sit down and talk and we can’t just talk about economic issues. Sooner or later, we have to discuss political issues. Xi wants to push toward that direction for sure, and Taiwan wants to delay it,” explained Chu.
China and Taiwan have been separately ruled since the Chinese civil war of the 1940s, when the Communists defeated the Nationalists. The Nationalists, or Kuomintang, moved their government to Taiwan, 160 kilometers off the coast. China considers Taiwan a part of its territory and has not ruled out the use of force to reunify the two sides.
However, the last military threat was made in 2005; three years later the two sides shelved political differences to sign economic, trade and investment deals that have lifted Taiwan’s economy. Last year, 2.6 million Chinese tourists visited Taiwan, making up 35 percent of the international headcount.
The latest pact would open 64 service sectors in Taiwan and 80 in China, but Beijing is bristling because the legislature in Taipei has stalled over the details.
Many have long viewed China’s goodwill on economic deals as a charm offensive designed to make the island’s public accept eventual political reunification.
This month’s comments from Chinese President Xi Jinping about finally resolving their political differences appeared to back that suspicion up. China wants talks to include a peace accord, Taiwan’s acknowledgement that the two sides belong to one country and more Chinese control over the island’s foreign relations.
Taiwan’s public supports business-related deals with China, the world’s second largest economy. Those pacts helped bring two-way trade to $121 billion last year.
Nonetheless, many Taiwanese remain leery of political agreements that could affect the island’s autonomy. Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou has been hampered by approval ratings in the teens and low 20s for much of the year. He cannot run for office again in 2016 because of term limits, but to help his ruling Nationalist Party’s reputation he is expected to want broad public support before talking politics with China.
Alexander Huang, strategic studies professor at Taiwan’s Tamkang University, thinks Ma must be careful if he meets his Beijing counterpart.
“The approval rating is pretty low right now, so we cannot say that he does not have the mandate of the people but he would be, I guess, extremely cautious if he thought about doing that. I think people would be interested to see whether… Ma Ying-jeou would be treated in an inferior position,” said Huang.
The Taiwanese president has declined to give a timetable for political talks, and the envoy who met Xi Jinping at the regional cooperation meeting made no further commitment. However, in the face of possible cuts in China’s economic largesse for staying quiet too long, Taiwan’s president is now deciding whether or not to visit China and its leader for the first time next year.