Taiwanese negotiators have arrived in Beijing for the first round of direct talks in over nine years. After decades of tension, the coming to power of Taiwan’s new Kuomintang government has set a conciliatory tone. High on the agenda are soft topics such as direct flights and mass tourism, with controversial matters being set aside for the time being.
New Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou favours closer ties with Beijing
Both Taipei and Beijing have expressed their wish that the economy and the wider population benefit from resumed direct talks. But the diplomatic rivals will take things slowly to begin with, avoiding controversial matters such as the signing of a peace treaty and Chinese missiles aimed at Taiwan.
The negotiators are due to discuss the launching of direct flights between Taiwan and the mainland which have been banned since 1949. Until now, flights have always had to stopover in Hong Kong. Once started, the direct flights will surely come as a great relief to the million or so Taiwanese who live on the mainland.
Taiwan hopes to build up mass tourism from the mainland. An agreement on flights and tourism will be signed by the negotiators on Friday before Taiwan’s 19-member team leaves the mainland.
Springboard to improved relations
In the past, the controversial question of Taiwan’s status and whether Beijing and Taipei’s relations fall into the domestic or international sphere have dogged all attempts to make progress on this front.
This initial meeting will build up on the vaguely-formulated “1992 Consensus”, according to which there is only “One China”, which can, however, be interpreted in different ways by the two countries. Beijing and Taiwan’s new president hope the talks will serve as a springboard to improved relations in the future.
The meeting will also be a starting point for the resumption of dialogue between two semi-official organisations -- the Taiwanese Straits of Exchange Foundation and China’s Association for Relations across the Taiwan Straits.
“At the moment, both sides are agreed on certain questions -- they realise that certain historical and political questions can’t be resolved right now,” said Taiwanese political scientist Yang Nian-zu. “Neither reunification nor independence can happen immediately. That’s why the acceptance of a difference of opinion is a reasonable compromise to both sides.”
Under Chen Shui-bian’s Democratic Progress Party, which campaigned relentlessly for independence, cultural identity changed considerably in Taiwan. Beijing’s military threats also strengthened anti-Chinese feeling, pushing more people onto the streets to demand independence.
But Beijing has found a more willing partner in the Kuomintang, which shares its roots with the mainland’s Communist Party on the mainland. Beijing does not seem to bear a grudge that the Kuomintang launched a bitter civil war against the Chinese Communist Party before 1949.
When Kuomintang chairman Wu Poh-hsiung was recently in Beijing, before his party came to power, he spoke about connecting people on both sides of the Taiwan Strait, sure of gaining the Chinese leadership’s approval: ”I think that people on both sides of the Strait belong to the Chinese people and nobody can deny the blood relations between us.”
Gesture of goodwill
President Hu Jintao said at his meeting with Wu Poh-hsiung that the international status of Taiwan was negotiable. “Apart from the “One China Principle” the military threat is the greatest problem,” thinks Zhu Xianlong from the Institute of Taiwan Studies in Beijing.
“The military question is the biggest hindrance to building trust between the two sides. Beijing said that the military question, especially the question of missiles, was also negotiable. Beijing also added that it did not want more missiles but actually wanted to dismantle them. That was a great gesture of goodwill.”
Beijing is not the only object of the Kuomintang’s affections. The new president Ma Ying-jeou made clear when he took office that he wanted to build up the battered relations with the United States -- Taiwan’s main ally and trading partner. Saying he wanted to form a strong army, he added that Taiwan was committed to regional stability and peace.