Nearly lost in the torrent of election and financial news last week was an event that will make the history books in Asia: High-level officials from China and Taiwan signed an agreement for direct daily flights, streamlined cargo routes, and postal service, thus putting further into the past the decades-long civil war between the two.
When he was inaugurated president of the Republic of China on Taiwan in May, Ma Ying-jeou said, "I sincerely hope that the two sides of the Taiwan Strait can seize this historic opportunity to achieve peace and co-prosperity." This agreement is a concrete step in that direction.
The overarching theme of his inauguration was the inclusion of all elements of Taiwan society in a unified effort to move forward economically, live peacefully with its giant neighbor, yet not change the political status quo. These were embodied in Ma's statement, "No unification, no independence, no use of force."
Although Ma won a landslide victory over of the discredited Democratic People's Party last spring, the DPP still commands the loyalty of a large number of citizens and its raison d'etre has always been independence for Taiwan. When the new agreement with China was signed in Taipei last week, thousands of DPP supporters took to the streets for a noisy two-day demonstration, condemning both China and President Ma.
China's Chen Yunlin and P.K. Chiang, respectively, the heads of their governments' cross-strait liaison bodies, signed the new agreement at the Grand Hotel, overlooking downtown Taipei during what was the first visit to Taiwan by a senior official of the mainland government since the conclusion of fighting in the civil war in 1949.
The agreement calls for daily flights between China and Taiwan (replacing weekend-only tourist flights, agreed upon at a Beijing meeting this past summer), along with direct port-to-port shipping and postal service. This is a boon for commerce for both sides, as it replaces the cumbersome arrangement whereby flights and shipments had to go through intermediate cities such as Hong Kong.
The two sides agreed also to notify one another of food safety issues -- in the wake of the widening scandal on the mainland over tainted powdered milk.
In recent years, many Taiwan businesses have invested in factories on the mainland. The agreement makes visits far easier. Taiwan travel firms expect a steady flow of China tourists visiting the island. International companies with offices in both Taiwan and the mainland will welcome the new arrangement, for both personnel and goods will move more quickly and easily across the Taiwan Strait.
The Ma Administration is betting that the streamlining of contacts and commerce between the two will boost Taiwan's economy, which has been suffering with the international downturn. Indeed, Ma's job approval rating has dropped from very high to near-George W. Bush levels.
The next round of bilateral talks is planned to take place on the mainland early next year. Likely items on the agenda: legal protection of Taiwan investors in mainland enterprises; cooperative measures in the area of criminal law enforcement; "normalization" in the financial matters such as banking, securities and futures.
Hovering in the background of this new "era of good feeling" is the unification issue. Beijing continues to claim sovereignty over Taiwan, and its coast facing Taiwan bristles with rockets. The ROC has the backing of the U.S. Taiwan Relations Act (30 years of age next spring) which commits us to supplying Taiwan with sufficient arms to defend itself.
This is not as contradictory as it may seem. With the exception of the eight years of the DPP's pro-independence reign in Taipei, tensions between the two sides have been gradually declining for some time. And, as is well known, Chinese people have a great capacity for patience. The two sides will work things out in their own time, almost certainly without resorting to war. Nevertheless, a well-armed Taiwan serves as a deterrent.
(Peter Hannaford was a consultant to agencies of the of the government of the Republic of China on Taiwan from 1977-95.)
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