Taiwanese cool to China's overtures
By Jens Kastner and Wang Jyh-Perng
TAIPEI - When a Chinese leader speaks on Taiwan, an army of cross-strait
observers weighs his words. Phrases and gestures are analyzed, and particular
attention is turned on what Beijing's official chose not to say.
Recently in New York, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao did say that China's missiles
aimed at Taiwan would eventually be removed; Wen did not say that the Taiwanese
must first recognize the one-China principle, according to which their island
is part of the People's Republic of China (PRC).
What barely amounted to a complete sentence was picked to pieces. Taiwan's
ruling Kuomintang (KMT) called it evidence of
Chinese goodwill. Taiwan's main opposition party, the pro-independence
Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), flatly dismissed the talk as empty words.
Others, however, saw Beijing's game plan clearly exposed: after having enticed
the rich through the Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement (ECFA) that
Taiwan and China signed earlier this year, and the rural population having been
lured by large-scale procurements of Taiwanese agricultural products, Beijing
aims at lulling Taiwan's military into passivity. According to China's alleged
assessments, the rest of the population will follow suit.
Yet, if this were China's strategy, it is showing cracks. It seems neither
Taiwan's military nor the public find Wen's overtures or, indeed, China in
general, particularly trustworthy.
"In fact, many of Taiwan's military officials oppose the China-Taiwan
confidence-building measures currently being established," says Arthur Ding,
research fellow at Taiwan's National Chengchi University's China Politics
Division in an interview with Asia Times Online. "Taiwan's military will follow
whatever is instructed by the political leadership, yet in general, it is wary
of the PRC's proposals," Ding says.
The confidence-building measures that Ding refers to are still in their
infancy. Nearly coinciding with the signing of the ECFA, a large-scale
symposium was held at the Chinese city of Xiamen's Taiwan Research Institute to
bring retired military brass from both sides of the Taiwan Strait together.
Beijing's suspected plan is plausible: distinguished grey-haired Taiwanese
military men who fought or whose father's fought Mao Zedong's communists in the
Chinese civil war in the late 1940s could function as a direct line to Taiwan's
present-day leadership. This would work as the old Taiwanese, just like their
mainland counterparts, had never given up hope on eventual reunification.
Not long after the symposium, People's Liberation Army spokesman Senior Colonel
Geng Yansheng surprised domestic and foreign media by announcing that China's
missiles stationed along Fujian province's coast could be removed. However,
Geng was quick to point out that the disarmament had to be based on the
At that time, Taiwan responded coolly. President Ma Ying-jeou said through his
spokesman that only if Beijing removed the missiles without conditions, would
this be taken as a step toward improving bilateral relations.
But, barely three months later, Ma finally had his chance to show significantly
more enthusiasm. "Taiwan welcomes Wen's remarks on missiles," the island's
newspapers' headlines heralded the day after China's premier spoke in New York.
So why did Wen choose not to insist on the one-China principle this time? Was
it because China now says that it is fine if Taiwan never recognizes the
government in Beijing as the sole legitimate government of China?
Or has Beijing agreed on the Taiwanese version of the so-called "92 consensus",
according to which both sides agree that although China and Taiwan belong to
the same China, as long each side can have its own definition of that one
China? Or was the genuine purpose of China's overtures what parts of Taiwanese
military circles suspect: an attempt by Beijing to sow discord among senior
officials at Taiwan's Ministry of Defense, with high-ranking personnel divided
over all this goodwill coming from the former arch-enemy?
None of these proposals are right, says Ding. "There was simply no need for Wen
Jiabao to mention the one-China principle." He elaborates, "Wen wasn't sitting
in formal negotiations, so he can make any kind of remark he wants to that
sounds attractive. Taiwan's military is fully aware of the condition imposed by
China on a missile withdrawal, and that is the one-China principle."
An even bigger headache to Beijing than the cold shoulder it is getting from
Taiwan's military is signs that Taiwan's public doesn't hold China, the Chinese
government or even Chinese civilians in particularly high esteem.
A recent survey by the United Daily News, one of Taiwan's major newspapers,
which intriguingly is strongly pro-KMT and supports the incorporation of Taiwan
within China, somewhat rocked the boat. It seems the impression the Taiwanese
have about China's one-party government isn't overly positive.
The majority of respondents also chose attributes such as "annoyingly
determined", "selfish", "upstart", "being only after personal profit" and even
"generally uncivilized" to describe Chinese civilians. Surely this wasn't what
the governments in Beijing or in Taipei had expected after two years of warming
cross-strait ties and social and cultural exchanges.
The survey's most striking finding, however, was how the Taiwanese regard the
prospect of eventual unification. In 2000, 12% wanted a quick declaration of
Taiwanese independence, last month it was 16%. Ten years ago, 32% of
respondents spoke out in favor of maintaining the current status quo
"eternally", now it's 51%. The percentage of Taiwanese that wanted to keep the
status quo and unify in the distant future dropped from 20% to 9%.
China's public relations problem leaves the KMT government in a dilemma. The
more Beijing senses that the KMT's candidates could fare badly in mayoral
elections to be held in Taiwan's five biggest cities later this year, the more
Beijing doubts that President Ma will win his own re-election bid in 2012. This
makes Beijing likely to intensify its pressure on Ma since Chinese President Hu
Jintao himself is under the gun.
Hu's internal opponents, Beijing's hawkish factions, are pushing him to make Ma
pay back the economic favors Beijing granted to Taiwan under the ECFA through
major political concessions during the remainder of both Ma's and Hu's
presidencies - Hu and Wen are required to step down in 2013. However, if
Taiwan's government repays its debt too fast, the chances that the KMT will
lose the elections will grow. If China allows Ma to repay little by little, he
might not be able to pay it all off.
If China fails to win Taiwanese hearts and minds any time soon, it could well
be too late. Wen's remarks made in New York regarding China's missiles will be
taken by some Taiwanese as a genuine gesture of goodwill. Whether it will be
enough, however, is questionable.
To Ding, Beijing, with its furious tirades aimed at Japan over the recent
arrest of a Chinese fishing boat captain who crossed into waters around the
disputed Diayutai Islands, has just produced yet another public relations gaffe
that turns the Taiwanese off.
He says, "China's recent reaction to Japan has frightened Taiwan over closer
economic ties, and that is China's consistent problem: China cannot be trusted
at all by Taiwanese, and it will be difficult to build confidence, less trust."
Jens Kastner is a Taipei-based writer. Wang Jyh-Perng is a reserve
captain of the Taiwan Navy and associate research fellow at the Association for
Managing Defense and Strategies.