Sunday, November 9, 2008

While Americans generally focused on the intensely fought presidential campaign, historic talks between mainland China and Taiwan recently reached a successful conclusion.

Beijing‘s top negotiator, Chen Yunlin, is the most senior mainland representative ever to visit Taiwan. His counterpart Chiang Pin-kung is equally senior.

These commercial negotiations are profoundly important, with significant political as well as economic implications. Four comprehensive agreements were reached, including direct shipping, expansion of weekly passenger flights from 36 to 108, and introduction of cargo flights up to a maximum of 60 per month.

There was agreement to hold senior talks every six months, with the next phase to focus on financial integration, including opening bank branches across the Taiwan Strait. Expectations are that this very great liberalization of banking will give an enormous boost to the already significant investment in China by companies and investors linked to Taiwan, and encourage further financial cooperation in sectors currently unforeseen.

The accord is a major triumph for Taiwan President Ma Ying-jeou, leader of the Kuomintang Party (KMT) and former mayor of Taipei. He was elected to the top Taiwan office in March of this year, providing an important fresh opportunity to reduce tensions and increase cooperation with Beijing. The KMT ticket secured 58 percent of the vote, a landslide.

In the same election, voters rejected two referenda to seek readmission to the United Nations. The island government, formally known as the Republic of China, left the world body when the People’s Republic of China was admitted in 1971.

Mr. Ma has worked over time to underscore the importance of consensus and compromise. His predecessor, President Chen Shui-bian of the rival Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), was much more confrontational with Beijing. A commission to manage relations across the Taiwan Strait was abolished. The DPP has also flirted in the past with a possible formal declaration of independence from the mainland, an act that Beijing consistently has declared would mean war.

In a 2006 visit to New York, Mr. Ma emphasized the 1992 formal agreement with Beijing to accept the concept of ‘one China,’ but differ on features of that China. That accord was fundamental to the comparatively effective dialogue that followed.

This sort of pragmatism generally has characterized Taiwan’s approach to not only mainland China but the world at large. Following Washington’s formal diplomatic recognition of Beijing in 1978, a process begun by President Richard Nixon’s historic visit to China in 1972, Taipei immediately launched a comprehensive, essentially non-confrontational, strategic response.

Consular offices in American cities were greatly expanded. Local and state government officials, along with members of the U.S. Congress, were assiduously courted. Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton was among those who visited Taiwan. Positive congressional ties became an especially important priority, which clearly paid dividends over the years.

Taiwan has become an essential banker to the enormous industrial revolution taking place on the mainland. Commercially successful, generally well-educated overseas Chinese in turn are a vital source of investment capital. Expatriate Chinese also vote in Taiwan elections.

The island has also emphasized the complex network of global intergovernmental organizations operating generally under the umbrella of the United Nations. A recent priority has been the World Health Organization; exceptional scientific and technological expertise has been cited as powerful and persuasive evidence for admission.

The agreements just reached are very promising for greater political stability as well as economic growth. The Taiwan Strait, which has often been the scene of tense confrontations in the past, is now the scene of expanding trade and investment. The next U.S. president has just been presented with a very attractive opportunity to further great power relations between our nation and China, effectively brokered by Taiwan.

Arthur I. Cyr is Clausen Distinguished Professor at Carthage College in Wisconsin. This column was distributed by Scripps Howard News Service.

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