Hope for China-Taiwan talks to progress to next phase of ties

This handout photo from China News Agency taken and released on February 13, 2014 shows Taiwanese official Wang Yu-chi onboard a train between Nanjing and Shanghai. China and Taiwan are holding their first government-to-government meeting in more than six decades.

LANDMARK government-to-government talks between China and Taiwan on Tuesday produced pledges to expand economic and people-to-people links, but it was rather telling that the Chinese media did not focus on them.

Instead, most played up an agreement to open a regular communication channel, underscoring how building mutual political trust has become the new near- term goal for Beijing under President Xi Jinping, say analysts.

"The meeting was a success, thanks to years of efforts in building mutual political trust," analyst Zhu Weidong of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS) told The Straits Times.

"Now the hope is that this meeting will be the launch pad for the next phase of cross-strait ties," he added.

This next phase will be for both sides to launch a mechanism for political dialogue that Beijing hopes will lead to its ultimate goal of reunification with Taiwan, which it views as a renegade province to be recovered by force if necessary.

But force has become an increasingly unlikely option since cross-strait ties began to warm in 2008, with China offering Taiwan economic carrots such as preferential investment and trade policies.

In meetings with senior leaders of Taiwan's ruling Kuomintang (KMT) in the past year, Mr Xi has repeatedly shown his desire for both sides to find political solutions to historical problems and not leave them to future generations. For instance, since both sides are technically still at war, a peace treaty would end the political limbo that has lasted more than six decades.

Mr Xi's desire paved the way for Tuesday's meeting between China's Taiwan Affairs Office director Zhang Zhijun and Taiwan's Mainland Affairs Council chairman Wang Yu-chi in Nanjing.

It was the first government-level contact between both sides since the KMT lost the civil war to the Chinese Communist Party in 1949 and fled to Taiwan.

Many Chinese observers expect the meeting to spawn more government-level contacts in the months ahead, such as a visit to Taiwan by Mr Zhang, who will be the mainland's first top cross-strait affairs official to do so.

But the most hoped-for meeting would be one between President Xi and his Taiwan counterpart Ma Ying-jeou at the Apec Leaders' Summit that Beijing is hosting in November.

But for the political process to move smoothly, Beijing needs to do two things, among others, say analysts such as Professor Zhang Nianchi of the Shanghai Institute of East Asia Studies.

First, Beijing has to exercise "imagination" to tackle challenges in the cross-strait relationship, a point which Mr Zhang raised at his meeting with Mr Wang. He noted how both sides are continuing semi-official talks even as they pursue political dialogue.

"There is no conflict. The government departments can tackle big-picture issues while the semi- official agencies can focus on details," he said.

Second, it is crucial for Beijing to maintain a correct pace, wrote CASS cross-strait expert Chu Jingtao in a commentary in the Beijing News daily yesterday.

He believed that Beijing is exercising caution by not moving too fast in case it triggers a backlash for the KMT government, given concerns in Taiwan that closer cross-strait ties may hurt the island's democracy and economy.

But he also pointed out that the window of opportunity is narrowing as Taiwan heads into election season, starting with the Taipei mayoral race at the end of the year. The presidential election follows in 2016. Mr Ma is barred by law from seeking a third four-year term.

"Time waits for no man. If Zhang and Wang can shake hands warmly at the Purple Palace Hotel, why can't higher-ranked leaders on both sides do likewise, and let go of the past while standing on the Great Wall?"

kianbeng@sph.com.sg


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