China specialists say the incoming administration will inherit the best prospects in years for a thaw in relations between China and Taiwan, easing a perennial irritant in U.S.-China relations.
In a little-noticed speech on New Year’s Eve, Chinese President Hu Jintao for the first time raised the prospect of security and military talks with Taiwan that could lead to a peace agreement.
“In order to stabilize the situation in the Taiwan Strait and reduce military and security concerns, the two sides may have contacts and exchanges regarding military issues in due course to explore the topic of establishing a mechanism of mutual military and security trust,” Mr. Hu said.
On the Taiwanese side, the government of Ma Ying-jeou - who took office in May on a promise to ease cross-strait tensions - has hinted that it may be relaxing restrictions on its diplomats making contact with counterparts from mainland China, said Bonnie Glaser, a policy analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. She said the Taipei government also may be easing its prohibition on former Taiwanese military officers traveling to the mainland.
Beijing considers the island territory - where non-communist Chinese forces fled in 1949 - to be a province of China.
Mr. Ma, in a statement, called the Hu remarks an “improved perspective.”
“It is our firm belief that both Taiwan and mainland China have the wisdom, understanding, creativity and conciliatory will to overcome the challenges that lie ahead, and that we will attain a peaceful new era in cross-strait relations,” Mr. Ma said.
Even China policy hawks in Washington say the developments may signal an easing of tensions that have simmered for the past decade as China built up its military and installed more than 1,000 missiles aimed at Taiwan. They warn, however, that lasting detente will require Beijing to curb and ultimately reverse the buildup.
“Yes, this is new,” Dan Blumenthal, an analyst at the conservative American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research and former State Department China hand, said of the exchange of conciliatory messages.
He said the impetus for the change came from Mr. Ma.
“It means that President Ma Ying-jeou of Taiwan has put forward ideas for some sort of peace treaty as well as cessation of hostilities, and Hu Jintao is responding somewhat positively.”
Mr. Blumenthal added, however, “This is a bit of a red herring because China holds all the cards in terms of reducing military tensions and China has not reduced its military buildup. There are still 1,400 ballistic missiles pointed at Taiwan and growing.”
Still, the news presents a unique opportunity for the incoming Obama administration.
Miss Glaser said Jeffrey Bader, who according to sources close to the transition is slated to be the senior director for East Asia policy in the incoming White House National Security Council, “is supportive of this process, the easing of tensions between the mainland and Taiwan. On this particular issue, I think the Obama administration will pick up where the Bush administration has left off.”
Mr. Bader, currently a scholar at the centrist Brookings Institution, is a former assistant U.S. trade representative and China specialist on the National Security Council under the Clinton administration.
Another China analyst familiar with Mr. Bader’s thinking said that “the Obama team does not think Bush did such a bad job with China. They would, if anything, be more forceful in criticizing China’s recent military buildup.”
The specialist asked not to be named because the Obama transition team has discouraged comments about its prospective policies.
In recent years, the Bush administration has been muted in criticism of the Chinese military advance.
A State Department official, asked for reaction to Mr. Hu’s speech, said the burden of peace rested equally on China and Taiwan.
“The United States has long called on both Taiwan and [China] to find constructive paths to dialogue to reduce tensions in the Taiwan Straits,” said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “It has been consistent U.S. policy to support a peaceful resolution of cross-straits differences acceptable to the people on both sides of the straits.”
Douglas Paal, a former director of the American Institute in Taiwan, the unofficial U.S. embassy on the island, said that “over the last four or five years the U.S. had drifted towards China’s agenda. Today, with the new government in Taiwan reducing tensions, the U.S. will be inclined to work with Taiwan to convince China to reduce its military threat.”
Other observers say Taiwan’s government appears to be accepting China’s long-term goal of unifying the island and the mainland.
John Tkacik, a former State Department China specialist who recently left the center-right Heritage Foundation, said a key factor in the thaw is the willingness of the Ma government to pursue a “formal unification of Taiwan with China.”
“It’s very difficult for the United States to be holier than the pope when it comes to Taiwan’s sovereignty,” Mr. Tkacik said. “But the United States has to consider the strategic downside of allowing our 10th largest trading partner to be swallowed by China.”