Cross Strait Political Engagement Imminent?
On June 14th, the Straits Exchange Foundation (SEF) and the Association for Relations Across the Taiwan Strait (ARATS), NGOs representing Taiwan and mainland China governments respectively, announced they have reached a consensus on the tasks that will be handled by their proposed representative offices in each other’s territory. Their purview will include business, economic, cultural, education and personal or emergency affairs. In a sense, they will be quasi-consulates in each other’s territory. It is a remarkable step forward between the two long-time rivals.
Prior to this, almost all of the progress made between the two has been on economic grounds. Mushrooming trade sparked by China’s economic reforms in the late 1970s motivated the two to reach the 1992 consensus, where both agreed to set aside knotty political differences and focus on addressing economic needs. Since then, numerous economic agreements have been signed. In 2009, both sides agreed to extradite economic criminals. The Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement (ECFA), a treaty designed to drop tariffs on various products and services, was signed in 2010. As trade between Taiwan and Mainland China becomes increasingly formalized and regulated, many are starting to wonder about the potential of new political negotiations.
There are signs pointing to the opening of political discussion between the two rivals. President Ma Ying-jeou of Taiwan said during a meeting with the National Committee on American Foreign Policy delegation on Oct 28th, “setting up representative offices across the strait is a political issue, not an economic one” and “it is the most political of all the agreements made thus far”. Prior to that, President Xi Jinping said during a meeting with Taiwan’s Former Vice President Vincent Siew at this year’s APEC that the political differences across the strait have to be resolved sooner or later. Zhang Zhijun, the Minister of the Taiwan Affairs Office of the State Council, also said economic talks across the strait without political talks are not sustainable. All the above are indications that leaders from both sides are seeking political engagement. However, Taiwan can potentially be a wild card.
Taiwanese opinions of further political engagement with the mainland are heavily divided. In fact, President Ma’s statement over representative office being a political issue sparked quite a uproar among Taiwan’s pro-independence supporters, especially given his all-time low approval rating of mere 18%. Even among supporters of the KMT, the party currently in power in Taiwan, many do not welcome political talks. Many pro-independence supporters see closer ties with China as a strategy China is emploing to annex Taiwan. With a population that is roughly evenly divided on pro-independence and status quo positions, there is unsurprisingly no clear direction to Taiwan’s policy in this area. Whether Taiwan can develop a coherent position and strategy regarding engagement with China is questionable. If the pro-independence camp (DPP) comes to power in 2016, there is no guarantee that political negotiations across the strait will continue.
While many politicians see resolving political problems across the strait as their responsibility to history, Taiwan’s democratic government and its unclear position can potentially forestall future talks. There are certainly desires for political engagement on both sides, but whether or not Taiwanese politicians can form a consensus on the issue will determine the fate of future engagement.