- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 6, 2008

Landmark economic deals signed between China and Taiwan this week have brought the longtime foes another step closer to ending 60 years of hostilities.

But entrenched political differences from a rupture that keeps the Cold War alive in East Asia threaten further reconciliation moves in the near future.

Both sides were content to ignore the bitter disputes that lie at the core of their divide for the sake of business on Tuesday, penning agreements on direct flights across the Taiwan Strait and direct shipping links that will drastically cut costs.

Most Taiwanese news media hailed the latest developments, which reverse policy dating back to a 1949 split between communist China and non-communist Taiwan, an island about 100 miles from the mainland coast.

“The agreements will have concrete impacts on the welfare of the Taiwanese people,” said the China Times. “They will help lure back outflowing capital to revive Taiwan’s slowing economy.”

But thrashing out contracts guaranteed to boost both economies at a time of financial turmoil is the easy part, said Chen Gang, a Chinese research fellow at the National University of Singapore’s East Asian Institute.

“The agreements represent substantial progress considering the stagnant development of cross-Strait relations over the last eight years. But regarding further progress, I feel that even in the short-term there is no hope,” he said.

From now on, talks are going to get a lot trickier as fundamental sticking points come to the fore.

The delicate nature of the relationship will be on show as soon as Thursday when Chinese envoy Chen Yunlin meets Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou.

Mr. Chen will not refer to Mr. Ma as “president” as that would contravene Beijing’s policy of not formally recognizing the Taiwanese government. China considers Taiwan a rebel province and says it will attack if the island ever declares formal independence from the mainland.

Mr. Ma is expected to raise the issue of China’s 1,000-plus missiles pointed at the island and push for Taiwan’s participation in international organizations, most notably the World Health Organization.

Taiwanese voters elected Mr. Ma as president earlier this year partly on a pledge to improve ties with mainland China after eight years of rule by the now-opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), which seeks formal independence from China.

Military threats, illustrated by a Chinese missile buildup, and diplomatic gamesmanship underscored by China’s refusal to grant Taiwan observer status in the WHO, have dominated cross-Strait relations for more than a decade.

Lin Cheng-yi, a research fellow with the Institute of European and American Studies at the Taipei-based Academia Sinica, believes a key test of the relationship will come in May when Taiwan again applies for observer status at the WHO.

Any clues on what will happen could come later this month at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum in Lima, Peru, says Mr. Lin.

Former Taiwanese Vice President Lien Chan will represent Taiwan at the forum.

“Lien Chan and [Chinese] President Hu Jintao have met several times and have a very cordial, personal relationship. I would like to see Beijing treat Mr. Lien with respect,” Mr. Lin said.

Pro-independence supporters in Taiwan are up in arms at the apparent move by Mr. Ma to reconcile with Beijing, accusing him of moving too far, too quickly.

Mr. Ma has said he will not “budge an inch” on the island’s sovereignty, but this has not prevented thousands of protesters, led by the opposition DPP, from giving the Chinese envoy, Mr. Chen, a hostile reception.

A pro-independence group, Taiwan Society North, put up a cash reward to anyone who hits Mr. Chen with a raw egg. The reward remained uncollected, but hundreds of protesters armed with eggs managed to keep the Chinese official trapped at a banquet inside Grand Formosa Regent Taipei until early Thursday when police pushed them away.