Big step across the Taiwan Strait By Brad Glosserman and Bonnie Glaser
Chinese and Taiwanese are watching closely this week as Chen Yulin makes a
five-day visit to Taipei. As head of the Association for Relations Across the
Taiwan Straits (ARATS), the semi-official body in Beijing that manages
relations with Taipei, Chen is the highest-ranking Chinese official to visit
Taiwan since 1949.
His trip is a significant step forward for the tempestuous cross-strait
relationship. Since Ma Ying-jeou took office as president of Taiwan earlier
this year, Taipei and Beijing have tried - with some success - to rebuild
relations. Ma has made that a priority, not only for its own sake, but for the
paramount task of strengthening Taiwan's economy, an objective that has become
pressing - and more difficult - as the world experiences an economic downturn.
Yet the very idea of building a more stable cross-strait relationship is
questioned by many in Taiwan and on the mainland. Taiwan remains deeply divided
about its appropriate relationship with Beijing, and Ma has been challenged
since his inauguration about his ultimate intentions and the wisdom of his
attempt to strengthen cross-strait ties.
As estimated, half a million protesters turned up at a rally last week
organized by the opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) opposing Chen
Yunlin's visit. On the mainland, there are doubts about how far to go in
pursuit of an improved cross-strait relationship. Some believe that greater
insecurity in Taiwan is in mainland China's interest as it will push the island
to compromise in its dealings with Beijing. Others fear that concessions to Ma
will be exploited by pro-independence advocates in a subsequent government.
China is also worried that Ma is too weak politically and will not have
sufficient backing to negotiate a peace accord, which both sides have set out
as a common objective.
So far, wisdom has prevailed and the leadership in both capitals has seized the
opportunity to build a more stable and mutually beneficial relationship. Since
Ma took office, there has been an unprecedented level of discussion between the
two governments or their appointed representatives. Those talks have been
matched by gestures that reflect and consolidate the gains from the changed
atmosphere. Regular weekend cross-strait charter flights have been launched and
are likely to become more extensive (serving more cities), geographically more
direct (rather than via Hong Kong air space), and operated daily.
Agreements will reportedly be signed on direct sea cargo routes, air charter
flights, direct postal links and food safety concerns when Chen meets his
Taiwan counterpart, Chiang Pin-kung, from the Straits Exchange Foundation (SEF)
We assessed and supported these incremental improvements in a recent study of
the role of confidence building measures (CBMs) in cross-strait relations.
Confidence building measures are formal and informal measures that address,
prevent, or resolve uncertainties among parties and thus reduce the possibility
of incidental or accidental conflict and increase mutual understanding and
trust. Simply put, they help decrease tensions and provide a foundation for a
more stable, enduring, and peaceful relationship. Few places would seem more
needing of, or provide a richer environment for, CBMs than cross-strait
In our analysis, we identified a menu of possible CBMs, ranging from the
establishment of reliable communications channels - a seeming necessity as the
volume of cross-strait traffic increases - to the publication of military
exercises or the pursuit of cooperation in areas such as environmental
protection and public health. We are especially gratified to note that one of
our suggestions, joint emergency response exercises, has already begun: last
month, teams from both sides of the strait conducted a search-and-rescue
exercise in the waters between Xiamen and Jinmen where boats ferry passengers
hourly as part of the "three mini-links". About 300 people joined, using more
than 40 transport vessels.
While progress has been made, future gains are not guaranteed; for that matter,
recent accomplishments can be reversed. The key to future success is ensuring
"win-win" outcomes for both Taiwan and mainland China. Both leaderships and the
public - especially in Taiwan - have to believe that a better relationship is
good for them. That is not easy when the two sides have different long-term
goals. An overwhelming majority of Chinese seeks reunification (and that is the
official goal of government policy); Taiwan is deeply divided about relations
with the mainland. (A majority prefers the status quo, preferring to wait and
see how the mainland develops politically and economically in the future.)
In this environment, small incremental steps that build confidence and have
benefits for both sides are critical. Our study concludes that top leaders play
a critical role in this process, particularly on the mainland. They must make
the decision to accommodate the needs of the other side and promote improved
cross-strait relations. Without this direction, lower-level officials will not
take politically risky initiatives to advance the relationship.
One element of this approach is a separation of political and economic
discussions. The former should be shelved for now; measures that return
economic benefits will pave the way for future talks about touchy political
issues. The Chen visit has adopted that mindset. In comments to the press
before his departure, he explained that his talks will focus on economic
cooperation: "No political issues pertaining to cross-strait relations will be
involved, nor will Taiwan's internal political affairs."
Yet even that divide will be tested if he meets as scheduled with Ma. The
president wants to meet him in his official capacity and be called "Mr
President": that could be difficult since Beijing does not recognize leadership
titles that imply sovereignty. Its political significance means that encounter
could provide benefits of its own. For his part, Ma has said the ground rules
for the talks include "facing up to reality, no denial of each other's
existence, creating benefits for the public, and peace for the two sides of the
In many respects, progress to date reflects "low-hanging fruit". More
substantial gains require more significant gestures on both sides. For its
part, mainland China should continue to abide the tacit "diplomatic truce"
proposed by Ma and resist the temptation to further reduce the number of
Taiwan's diplomatic allies (which now stands at 23).
In addition, Beijing can and should address the demands of the Taiwanese people
for greater participation in the international community, beginning with the
World Health Organization. China could also make a near-term political gesture
by reducing some of the missiles currently aimed at Taiwan and in the longer
term take meaningful steps to reverse its military buildup opposite the island.
Through bilateral negotiations aimed at a peace accord, Beijing could declare
its intention not to use force against Taiwan as long as Taiwan refrains from
Taiwan should persist in expanding its engagement and contacts with the
mainland, be flexible in its approach to seeking participation in international
organizations, maintain robust defense capabilities, and consult with the US on
managing the evolving cross-Strait relationship. It is especially important
that all of Taiwan's political parties learn the meaning of constructive
opposition and act responsibly. The extreme partisanship that dominates
politics on the island - and manifestations such as the assault last month on
Zhang Mingqing, Chen's deputy, by protesters when he visited Taiwan - only
undermine Taiwan's image in the world. Both Taiwan and the mainland should
avoid setting preconditions for engaging in dialogue on any specific issues.
There is a third party to this process: the United States. While the future of
cross-strait relations depends on decisions and actions taken by Taipei and
Beijing, the US, by virtue of the Taiwan Relations Act and its moral
commitments to Taiwan and its desire to build a constructive and cooperation
relationship with China, is also involved.
The US administration should make clear that it supports improvements in
cross-strait relations reached through the free choices of the people in Taiwan
and China and offer to assist them, when requested by both sides, in overcoming
obstacles to implementing any agreements they reach.
Brad Glosserman (email@example.com) is executive director of
Pacific Forum CSIS. Bonnie Glaser (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a senior
associate at the Freeman Chair in China studies at CSIS and a senior associate
at Pacific Forum CSIS. Their study, "Promoting Confidence Building across the
Taiwan Strait", is available at www.csis.org or www.pacforum.org.