Time for Cross-Strait Subtlety
By Frank Ching
In the two months since Ma Ying-jeou was inaugurated as president, much has changed in the cross-strait relationship ― in a positive direction.
At the beginning of July, nonstop weekly charter flights began, opening a new chapter in relations between the two sides, marked by hostility through much of the last 60 years. Although dubbed weekend flights, they actually last from Friday to Monday. And the plan is to turn these into daily scheduled flights by next summer.
Then, last week, a group of mainland tourists arrived, ushering in a new period of improved people-to-people relations, as mainlanders and Taiwanese get a chance to know each other better at first hand. Greater interaction, with up to 3,000 mainlanders arriving daily, should lead to better understanding and less suspicion.
More agreements are in the offing. The two sides plan to conduct talks through intermediary bodies again after the Olympics, and such issues as direct marine links and cargo flights will be on the agenda.
On its part, the Ma administration is taking some unilateral actions, including lifting restrictions on investment on the mainland and the export of sophisticated technology.
All of that is very positive. But there is a danger that politics will intrude into essentially economic agreements.
Beijing had, during the administration of Chen Shui-bian, shifted from pressing for unification to opposing Taiwan's independence. If it sees the inauguration of the Ma administration as an opportunity to again press for unification, there will be trouble ahead.
For one thing, President Ma had made it clear that during his term in office he would not talk with mainland China about unification. He has to stick to this campaign promise. For one thing, the conditions simply are not ripe. Premature pushing for unification by Beijing will only make it more difficult for the Ma administration to govern Taiwan, where there is little support for early unification.
The Ma administration has also made its position clear by denying reports of any plan to revive the National Unification Council, abolished by his predecessor. The council's job was to recommend policies to bring about unification with the mainland.
But there have been some disturbing signs from the mainland. Recently, a Chinese official has said that the name under which Taiwan's team will compete in the Beijing Olympics can be rendered as ``Taipei, China" rather than ``Chinese Taipei."
This was a not very subtle attempt to box Taiwan into a corner so that it will be seen by the international community as no more than a part of the People's Republic of China. The suggestion was immediately rejected by Taiwan's foreign ministry.
Then, in Japan, during the G-8 summit meeting which Chinese President Hu Jintao also attended, it was reported that Mr. Hu had thanked U.S. President George W. Bush for suspending arms sales to Taiwan and voiced the hope that there would be a permanent freeze.
While the United States has not yet acquiesced to Taiwan's request for F-16 fighter jets, this does not mean that Washington has decided to freeze arms sales. Pressing the United States to do so would only result in a greater feeling of insecurity in Taiwan ― something that would make it more difficult for the Ma administration to reach new accommodations with the mainland.
Through rapid expansion of its military in the last few years, Beijing has already tilted the cross-strait military balance in its favor. It should understand that, for the two sides to reach agreements on relaxing tensions, Taiwan needs to feel confident rather than vulnerable.
Because of political gridlock during the Chen years, Taiwan has fallen behind in military preparedness. There is a need now to restore the balance to some extent, with Ma promising to devote 3 percent of GDP to military spending. Beijing should understand that this is not a provocative move. It is purely defensive.
President Hu has spoken of talks between the mainland and Taiwan in terms of equality. He should realize that there can be no equality in any bargaining where only one side has a gun, which is pointed directly at the other. If Taiwan buys weapons, it is simply to protect itself. Taiwan has virtually no offensive capability.
For both Taiwan and the mainland to maximize the benefits of the Ma presidency, Beijing must be sensitive to the political constraints under which a popularly elected government in Taiwan must work. If Beijing pushes too hard, it will be counterproductive, possibly helping the pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party returning to power sooner rather than later.