America’s latest decision to sell a bunch of weapons to Taiwan was, predictably, met by the usual howls and threats from Beijing. To be honest, your correspondent couldn’t care less: Beijing and Washington play this petty game every few years, and nothing ever comes of it.
But this is a far more important year than most for cross-strait relations. Scary they might be, but the missiles are beside the point. From a political perspective, what really matters is the money.
In January, taks finally began on an economic pact that both Beijing and Taipei hope will lead to a full free trade agreement. If they succeed in signing the inelegantly titled Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement (ECFA), it would mark the biggest breakthrough in cross-strait relations in more than 60 years.
Taiwan – or, more precisely, President Ma Ying-jeou and his Kuomintang (KMT) chums – want the deal in order to boost business with China, which already absorbs 40% of the island’s exports and 65% of its outbound investment. They also hope it will lead to further free trade agreements with Association of South East Asian Nations members, for whom 2010 marks the inauguration of their own free trade area, which also includes China.
Although the ECFA promises to open up Taiwan to Chinese firms, the political schemers in Beijing care little about such a puny market. What really matters is that closer economic integration with Taiwan promises to tie China’s "renegade province" closer to the motherland.
In fact, despite Chinese claims that Taiwan has always been an indissoluble part of China, it is nothing of the sort. The first Chinese settlers arrived in Taiwan in 1624 – barely half an hour ago on China’s historical clock. The Qing dynasty claimed sovereignty over Taiwan in 1683, but lost it to the Japanese just 200 years later. China reclaimed the island in 1945, but since 1949 it has effectively been an independent nation.
In other words, Taiwan has only been ruled from Beijing for 200 years or so, and has basically been independent of the mainland since the Japanese arrived in 1895. And therein lies the problem: Taiwan isn’t really Chinese at all. It’s certainly quite a bit Chinese, but it’s also a little bit Japanese and a whole lot more Taiwanese.
They might have succeeded in locking up their biggest enemy – the pantomime villain Chen Shui-bian – but Ma and his cronies are struggling to sell the China dream to the Taiwan people. After being demolished in local elections in December and parliamentary by-elections in January, their chances in the presidential election in 2012 are not looking good.
Persuading the electorate that their future lies with the authoritarian brutes next door is tough. Sure, Taiwan’s citizens are realists who realize that survival depends on retaining good economic relations with China. That’s one major reason why Ma beat off Chen in 2008. But the fact of the matter is that most of the island’s voters see themselves as Taiwan people first and Chinese people second, and they want that independence to be protected. Third-generation "mainlanders" – the grandchildren of the defeated KMT troops who fled to the island in 1949 – are far more likely to see themelves as "Taiwan nationals" than their fathers.
Ma has invested too much political capital in the ECFA to let it fail. But any agreement is unlikely to mark the beginning of the end for Taiwan’s independence. Crucially, that is one thing the island’s voters will not allow to happen.