Breakthrough in cross-strait ties but a long way to go yet

Taiwanese official Wang Yu-chi who is in charge of the islands China policy meets with his Chinese counterpart Zhang Zhijun (R) from the Taiwan Affairs office at the Purple Mountain Guest House in Nanjing

BEIJING - A week after achieving a breakthrough in the form of official cross-strait talks, Chinese President Xi Jinping is pushing for closer political dialogue with Taiwan, but faces challenges to attaining quick results this year, say analysts.

They believe he has signalled his keenness for a meeting with Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou and to win over the hesitant Taiwanese public and even pro-independence opposition parties over deeper political interaction.

These goals could be seen in Mr Xi's remarks on Tuesday to Taiwan's former vice-president Lien Chan, who is on a four-day visit here from Monday in his role as the ruling Kuomintang's (KMT) honorary chairman.

Beijing-based observer Li Fan believes Mr Xi has made a veiled reference to a possible meeting between him and Mr Ma by stressing the mainland's openness in pursuing consultations on an equal footing with Taiwan under the "One China" framework and in trying anything that would advance peaceful cross-strait ties.

"Xi knows there are doubts in Taiwan that the mainland is open to such a meeting and is addressing them by showing his eagerness," said Mr Li, who watches cross-strait developments closely.

Talk of a Xi-Ma meeting arose after China's Taiwan Affairs Office head Zhang Zhijun and Taiwan's Mainland Affairs Council chairman Wang Yu-chi met in the eastern city of Nanjing on Feb 11.

In their first government-to-government interaction since the KMT fled to Taiwan in 1949 after losing the civil war to the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), the two sides discussed a possible meeting between their leaders.

But China has rejected as inappropriate Taiwan's suggestion of a meeting on the sidelines of the Apec Leaders' Summit in Beijing this November, stemming from its aversion to airing the cross-strait issue on a global stage.

Cross-strait expert Chu Jingtao of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences said Mr Xi has also shown a willingness to make compromises towards Taiwan in his remarks that Beijing respects Taiwanese compatriots' "social system and way of living".

"Xi also said one cannot change history but can seize the present and create a new future. Taken together, his remarks send the message that the mainland is willing to make compromises to resolve political differences," he told The Straits Times.

Mr Xi did not signal any overt change in China's Taiwan policy at his meeting with Mr Lien, but his remarks are closely watched for signs of new efforts to come in cross-strait developments.

After all, it was at a similar meeting in February last year with Mr Lien that Mr Xi first revealed his eagerness to push political dialogue through his pledge to continue peaceful development towards the goal of peaceful reunification.

Since then, Mr Xi has repeatedly pushed his political agenda in meetings with KMT leaders, like stressing to Taiwan's former vice-president Vincent Siew last October that political differences between the two sides should not be passed to future generations.

Mr Xi's reiteration on Tuesday of China's mantra that the mainland is willing to work with anyone keen to contribute to cross-strait ties regardless of their past beliefs is an overture to Taiwanese opposition parties such as the independence-leaning Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), said Singapore-based analyst Chiang Min-hua.

"The CCP has no adequate mechanisms for interaction with the DPP, like those it has with the KMT. Xi's remarks could signal a focus on building links with the DPP, which it should be doing," said Dr Chiang, a research fellow at the East Asian Institute.

Analysts say Mr Xi is also trying to achieve results in political dialogue before Taiwan enters the election mode with the Taipei mayoral polls this year-end.

It fears obstacles to come should a leader emerge in the 2016 presidential election who is less friendly to Beijing. Mr Ma is barred by law from running for a third term.

Professor Chu said Mr Xi's reminder that the current peachy cross-strait ties could return to the old days of turmoil - before 2008 when the DPP was in charge - reflects his sense of urgency.

But growing doubts in Taiwan over the impact of closer economic links with the mainland could hurt Mr Xi's bid, said Dr Chiang, pointing out as proof the impasse in Taiwan's Parliament over the trade in services pact between the two sides and, in turn, the trade in goods pact.

"Taiwan's economy has slowed in recent years as it has failed to upgrade fast enough while its factories relocated to the mainland. People are asking why Taiwan should open up more to the mainland economically and politically.

"Unless those two agreements make advancement, chances of political progress in the near future might be low, and China knows that," she added.

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