There's wind beneath the sails

IN 1973, Chinese leader Mao Zedong told then US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger that China could "wait 100 years" to resolve the Taiwan issue.

Optimists looking at developments last week might conclude that China is ahead of schedule.

Taiwan's point man on mainland affairs Wang Yu-chi crossed the Taiwan Strait to Nanjing and Shanghai, where he sat down for talks with his mainland counterpart Zhang Zhijun. It was the first government-to-government meeting since 1949 between the two sides that claim to be the rightful government of China.

The event has been variously hailed as historic, landmark and a breakthrough for cross-strait relations, by analysts and the media.

And indeed it was.

There were many firsts over those four days: Mr Wang was addressed as "Chairman Wang", conferring parity of status on the Taipei government - a far cry from the days when Beijing branded its leaders "bandits" for stealing Taiwan; Taiwan's formal name of "Republic of China" was uttered on mainland soil without too much bristling from Beijing; and the possibility of a meeting between presidents Xi Jinping and Ma Ying-jeou was broached.

These savvy concessions by Beijing meant that while there were few substantive outcomes from Mr Wang's trip, he was able to make the case back home that the trip was a success for Taipei.

Compared with before, he said, there has been progress in how the mainland is recognising the "political reality" that the two sides of the strait are being governed separately.

Much of this new accommodating approach by Beijing may be skilful posturing. After all, it gave away little that really mattered, and indeed, a Ma-Xi meeting is unlikely at the Apec summit.

Beijing also did not budge on other issues, such as green-lighting Taipei's participation in multilateral trade pacts.

But put together, the compromises were symbolically significant enough for analysts and much of Taiwan's mainstream media to herald the meeting as a "milestone", bolstering Mr Ma's pro-unification support base within the island's fractious political environment.

For so long, relations were in the freezer. Now, both sides have agreed to institutionalise regular exchanges - phone numbers were swopped between officials.

This opens the door to more discussions, and eventually could propel the start of a political dialogue.

And this will happen within Mr Xi's time in power, predicts Professor Huang Jing of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy.

"The status quo will remain the reality for a long time, but not for as long as I used to think," he said.

"Looking at what Mr Xi said, I believe he wants to open the door to institutionalising political dialogue - with the understanding that the eventual goal is reunification - while he is in charge."

Mr Xi, who took power in 2012, told Taiwan's former vice-president Vincent Siew last October the divide "cannot be passed from generation to generation".

The Chinese leader's more activist style marks a break from that of his predecessor Hu Jintao.

Under the latter, China took a softly softly approach of maintaining the status quo while strengthening economic and cultural ties.

Two factors saccount for Mr Xi's impatience, say analysts.

First, the regional geopolitical landscape has changed.

A more confident China has "become more dominant and increased its capability to control cross-strait relations", says Prof Huang.

In contrast, the United States, a key power player in the relationship, has become "more of a bystander given its relative decline of power in the region", its Asia pivot notwithstanding.

Second, the situation in Taiwan offers China a "small window of opportunity" to act, says Professor George Tsai of the Chinese Culture University in Taiwan.

The unpopular Mr Ma is keen to cement his legacy before his term ends in 2016. Then and in local polls this November, the pro- independence Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) may win control of the government - a scenario that does not bode well for cross- strait relations, says Professor Tung Chen-yuan, who was vice- chairman of the Mainland Affairs Council during DPP president Chen Shui-bien's term.

Thus, Beijing's eagerness to step up its game - including by playing nice in this inaugural official contact between both sides, even as it flexes its muscles in the neighbourhood.

But cross-strait relations did not get to a 65-year state of limbo without being intractable.

Compared with those before him, Mr Xi may be willing to be more flexible on some matters in order to lure Taiwan closer into its political orbit. But he will not yield on those that fundamentally compromise China's claim of sovereignty over Taiwan.

On the other side, as Mr Wang pointedly noted in Nanjing, Taiwan is a democracy, and its leaders heed the will of the people.

A vast majority of Taiwanese - 70 per cent - want things to remain as they are.

Beijing's ongoing strategy of romancing Taiwan through economic benefits has had limited success in chipping away at resistance to reunification.

Already, the DPP is criticising Mr Wang and President Ma for not rejecting the one-China principle during the trip.

Former DPP chairman Tsai Ing-wen, who is expected to run for the presidency in 2016, raised similar concerns, saying that Taiwan should not be too cowardly to voice its own claim, reported the Taipei Times.

So how the situation will play out will require "imagination" - as Mr Zhang called for, in resolving roadblocks.

He has accepted an invitation to visit Taiwan, and has said he hopes to do so within the first half of the year.

In intensifying the courtship, Beijing should look at giving Taiwan more international space, something the island has long coveted, suggests Prof Huang.

For instance, it could allow Taipei to be granted membership in second-tier global bodies such as the World Health Organisation and observer status in others like the United Nations.

On Taipei's side, it should consider relaxing its stance that a Ma-Xi meeting should take place at the Apec forum, says Professor Chu Jingtao of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. One suggestion for a venue is the Boao Forum, a China-led summit for government and business leaders.

Another "symbolic" act of goodwill by Taipei, suggests Prof Tsai, would be to reactivate the National Unification Council, which was shut down by former president Chen in 2006 to highlight "the consciousness of Taiwan's status as an independent entity".

But for now, despite the latest progress, any end-game is far, far off in the distance.

As it is, analysts differ wildly in their predictions of plausible scenarios: a "One Country Three Systems" situation - with Taiwan given more autonomy than Hong Kong; a form of confederation - as some in Taiwan hope for; an indefinite extension of the current situation; or straight-out Taiwan independence.

Prof Huang believes the rapid economic development of China is such that Taiwan will - sooner rather than later - return to the fold willingly, with "nominal reunification under a 'one country three systems' framework".

Dismissing the current resistance within Taiwan, he says: "The irony is, the closer the two sides walk together, the greater the psychological resistance."

And Prof Chen says change will come only when China becomes a democracy: "Only then will Taiwan embrace China on a voluntary basis."

In which case, no one knows how long it will take.

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