It was little more than two hours, a blink of an eye in 65 years of fraught relations between Taiwan and China.
But an afternoon meeting on mainland soil between the top-ranking cross-straits affairs representatives, the highest-level meeting since 1949, marked a “breakthrough” in the often-tense relationship, observers said.
On Tuesday in the Chinese city of Nanjing, the leader of Taiwan’s Mainland Affairs Council Wang Yu-chi met with Zhang Zhijun, who heads China’s Taiwan Affairs Office. It was the latest sign of rapprochement after years of increasingly close economic ties.
“It’s certainly a breakthrough. To what degree, it will represent official contact still remains to be seen,” said Ho Szu-yin, a political science professor at National Chenghchi University in Taiwan, who has in the past served the ruling Kuomintang party.
“But symbolism is very important in cross-straits relations, so I think the contact is still in and of itself very important.”
The content of the talks was shrouded in secrecy, with no publication of an official agenda. But in Taipei and Beijing, local media suggested the discussion was likely to touch on the establishment of mutual representative offices, moves toward greater economic co-operation and the provision of health care for Taiwanese students studying on the mainland.
(Taiwanese press representatives and the opposition Democratic Progressive Party also complained that two journalists were not allowed in to China to cover the meeting.)
Chinese media reported that the two sides agreed to regular communication between their cross-straits affairs departments.
“I believe, with this arrangement, the two sides will improve exchanges, understanding and mutual trust, and better handle outstanding problems in cross-strait exchanges,” Mr. Zhang said.
Economic ties between Taiwan and Beijing are vast and growing, with nearly $220-billion in cross-straits trade last year alone (up 16.7 per cent from 2012), and eight million trips between the two sides. When Taiwan President Ma Ying-jeou was elected in 2008, direct air and sea cargo were not yet allowed between the two sides; aircraft took an hour detour through Hong Kong airspace to travel from Taipei to Shanghai. That has all changed, with direct mail links established as well. An agreement to liberalize cross-straits trade in services – including banks, hospitals, construction and tourism – has also been signed, although not yet ratified by Taiwan.
China, however, sees numerous avenues for closer ties.
“Under the One China principle, domestic civil affairs need co-operative administration from both sides for common work,” said Liu Guoshen, a professor at Xiamen University’s Taiwan Research Institute. “It’s necessary because after so many years of development, relations between two sides are now becoming closer, so there are many things that need to be standardized.”
In Taiwan, often-vocal opponents hold deep skepticism over tighter economic bonds with China, wary that better relations over money will inevitably veer into the political realm and renew talk of reunification. China has long made clear its willingness to use force to achieve reunification with Taiwan. However, Beijing, faced with a window of opportunity to smooth relations, is attuned to the sensitivity of that issue, in particular.
“The mainland today seldom mentions reunification,” Mr. Liu noted. “That illustrates that the mainland continues to treat the issue with substantial caution.”
But the talks are being held against an unstable political backdrop in Taiwan, whose Mr. Ma The Economist famously called “an ineffectual bumbler” in 2012. In December, his approval ratings stood at roughly 11 per cent (though that was a slight improvement from 9.2 per cent in September), and he has lurched from scandal to scandal. Taiwan last year suffered a series of food safety scandals that included companies mixing cheaper products into olive oil, which called into question government competence at a time of stalling growth. After posting eye-popping 10.79-per-cent growth in 2010, Taiwan’s GDP expanded by just 2.19 per cent last year.
Street protests have become an increasingly regular feature of Mr. Ma’s tenure; at one speech, he was hit with tossed shoes.
The promise of better relations with China – and the hope for corresponding improved economic opportunity for Taiwan – was among the reasons Mr. Ma first won election in a landslide in 2008. The meeting in China, then, bears the whiff of an unpopular leader trying to revive past glory.
It may, however, accomplish the opposite. A November Taiwan Thinktank poll found that 50.8 per cent of people worried about unification with China, outnumbering the 45.3 per cent who said they were not worried. Fully 67.9 per cent said a referendum should take place ahead of such talks.
Still, it seems clear that the Tuesday meeting serves to further relax tensions that have long plagued China’s relations with Taiwan.
“The fact that they’re willing to meet signals that there’s a degree of rapport that at the very least means that imminent conflict is not on the horizon,” said Yuen Pau Woo, president of the Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada.
The rise in visits between the two sides, including growing number of mainland tourists coming to Taiwan, has also helped, he said.
That growing interaction has “underscored both to Mainlanders and to Taiwanese that there’s been some growing apart, if you will, in the mentality and the culture between Taiwan and the mainland,” he said. “And I think that’s good, because if indeed the two sides come to terms on their political relationship in the future, it has to be on the basis of an accurate understanding of how they are different, not just how they are the same.”
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