Sunday, November 23, 2008

The recent visit by Chen Yunlin to Taipei marks a historic breakthrough in relations between Taiwan and mainland China. Mr. Yunlin heads the Association for Relations Across the Taiwan Straits located in Beijing and is the highest-ranking mainland Chinese representative to travel to Taiwan for negotiations since 1949. His visit resulted in several agreements between Taiwan and mainland China that establish closer ties. This bodes well for the future of cross-strait relations but needs to be further buttressed by more concessions and actions of goodwill by mainland China.

Since the spring election of Taiwan President Ma Ying-jeou, his “flexible diplomacy” has resulted in the mending of fences between the two sides - a relationship that had been strained by Mr. Ma’s pro-independence predecessor, Chen Shui-bian. The agreements signed in early November allow for an increase in air and shipping links, deepening postal links and greater cooperation on food safety. The two sides also agreed to hold similar discussions every six months, with the next round being consigned to financial issues.

Despite this historic breakthrough, nonetheless, there are a few ominous signs on the horizon. Mr. Ma’s approval rating has plummeted to 29 percent, falling dramatically from his election victory in March when he captured almost 60 percent of the vote. There is an increasing concern that Mr. Ma is not extracting sufficient concessions from China and that these increased ties, although welcome by the vast majority, may result ultimately in undermining Taiwan’s sovereignty. Since 1992 both sides recognize that there is “one China” but differ on how this is defined, leading to an ambiguous status quo. The undercurrent of discontent with Mr. Ma’s leadership surfaced in demonstrations of approximately a half million protesters against his regime in late October. The pro-independence protesters fear that Mr. Ma is gradually weakening Taiwan’s position in regard to its larger, authoritarian neighbor.

Among the most important concessions Mr. Ma must secure is the removal of approximately 1, 200 missiles that China has aimed at Taiwan. China can also show goodwill by allowing Taiwan to enter international organizations such as The World Health Organization. Such measures would demonstrate that this new course is indeed based on mutual respect and a desire for continued peace.

America has a vested interest in ensuring that the China-Taiwan embrace bears lasting fruit. Taiwan is America’s 9th largest trading partner and is a vital ally in the region. The Bush administration has supported these latest reconciliatory efforts while also supplying Taiwan with defensive weapons. The next administration must consider whether it will comply with Taiwan’s request for F16s which it needs to maintain the capability of its air defenses. Beijing must understand that if harmonious relations are to continue, it too must make significant concessions regarding its missiles. Otherwise Taiwan and its American ally will ensure adequate protection. Harmony is a two-way street.

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