Could 2008 be a breakthrough year in cross-strait relations? It is unwise to be too optimistic given the number of previous disappointments. Nonetheless there are intertwined reasons why we could be in for a pleasant surprise.
That may be a bold statement given that there remain some concerns that, with the presidential election in Taiwan coming shortly before the Beijing Olympics, President Chen Shui-bian could be tempted to take rash pro-independence actions, which would meet with a very stiff Chinese response.
However, there are both immediate and long-term reasons why this is now most unlikely and that 2008 could see not only practical steps in the direction of cross-strait exchanges but also some more fundamental changes of attitude on both sides.
First of all, however Chen may want to champion separatism, his political clout is now limited. The mix of corruption, proven and alleged, against his family with the broader perception of incompetent government has left him standing low in the opinion polls.
There is limited public desire to follow him down an adventurous path such as rewriting the constitution in a controversial way.
With legislative elections this year and the presidential election in 2008, Chen’s Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) has turned towards a more pragmatic leader in Frank Hsieh, former mayor of Kaohsiung and hence one well aware of the economic costs of failing to develop cross-strait links.
A powerful majority
Although hard-core voters are still prepared to sacrifice economic gains to protect Taiwan’s identity from being swamped by too-close relations with the mainland, the majority – and certainly the middle ground where elections are decided – now favor a reduction in barriers. Taiwan’s electronics and IT industries may be strong but its service industries have lagged badly due to the lack of direct links and two-way restrictions on investment.
The most rapid progress in cross-strait links is likely if the KMT wins, if only because it is easier for Beijing to deal with a party that genuinely believes in eventual unification. But even if the DPP pulls off a surprise and wins one of the elections – more likely the presidential one than the legislative one – 2008 will likely still see direct flights and shipping, a large influx of mainland tourists and a lifting of some investment restrictions.
At the same time, Taiwan links to the US are not what they were. President Chen’s undiplomatic posturing has annoyed Washington while Taiwan businessmen know they – as major players in mainland exports of shoes, garments and electronic goods – would be big losers if the US gets tough with China over its trade surplus.
There is of course no guarantee that closer economic relations will lead to a dilution of Taiwan’s sense of separateness, but there are now new elements in the equation. The most important is the attitude of President Hu Jintao. He has persistently followed a path of moderate words and encouragement of cultural and other exchanges even while developing military capabilities that remind Taiwan of China’s ability to impose itself should the need arise.
The emphasis is on soft power influence, particularly in Asia. Beijing believes time is on its side and that a sharp response merely puts Taiwan’s people on the defensive.
The road is long
Taiwan’s democratic system, its strategic location and links with the US and Japan all mean détente is a long way away. But if all goes well in 2008 it is possible that there could be a settlement on the basis of a very loose definition of “One China”. This might allow a recognized separate Taiwan administration to continue for the foreseeable future and perhaps even gain UN membership in the same way that China recognizes the reality of two Koreas.
Taiwan would have to abandon any notion of its being non-Chinese and accept demilitarization. At the same time the mainland would need to recognize that Taiwan is geographically, socially and historically very different despite being inhabited by Chinese people.
This is all more possible than probable. But as the mainland economy gradually comes closer to that of Taiwan, it is quite possible that the dynamics of the cross-strait relationship will change from emphasizing differences to accepting them for what they are.