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[quote]On Friday, Beijing gave yet another explicit indication that it no longer requires Taiwan to accept there is only “one China” before the two sides can pursue closer economic ties. Deputy Director of China’s Taiwan Affairs Office Wang Zaixi proposed that Taiwan and the mainland negotiate a free-trade pact. Moreover, he suggested that there would be no political preconditions: “And any political dispute that interferes with and affects bilateral economic and trade exchanges should be left aside and gradually resolved.”
This may be a small overture, but it is part of a broader shift that is truly remarkable. Over the past two years, China’s policy toward Taiwan has streadily evolved away from military threats and toward economic carrots. When Taiwanese President Chen Shui-bian took office in May 2000, there was speculation that war clouds would begin to gather because China could not tolerate a pro-independence president. Now China has not only learned to live with Mr. Chen, it is actively trying to work with him.
So far Mr. Chen seems to be spurning the offer of cooperation, which is a pity because he could have gained significant benefits for Taiwan. During the 2000 presidential campaign, he actually promised to improve relations with the mainland. And in his inaugural address, he pledged to strengthen interaction between the two sides of the Taiwan Strait. He even had some good advice for Beijing, quoting a Taoist proverb: “When those afar will not submit, then one must practice kindness and virtue to attract them.” But so far, when China has offered “kindness and virtue,” Mr. Chen has not reciprocated.
To be fair, Beijing hasn’t entirely adopted kindness and virtue as its strategy to reunify Taiwan. But at least it has made significant progress in that direction. When Mr. Chen came to power, Beijing initially refused to even discuss resuming direct flights and shipping routes between the two sides, known as the “three links,” unless he signed up to the “one China” concept. Then Beijing signaled that it would be acceptable if the routes were just considered domestic, rather than international. Finally even that fell by the wayside, and a special cross-Strait designation was offered as a way to dodge the issue of whether Taiwan is a sovereign state. China also compromised on how to negotiate the links, accepting a Taiwanese proposal to have business groups thrash out the details.
It’s probably no coincidence that China is now renewing its charm offensive at a time when another prong of its reunification strategy, the “one country, two systems” concept, is in trouble. Former paramount leader Deng Xiaoping offered this special autonomy status to Hong Kong with the idea that it would form the model for reunification with Taiwan. The idea is a complete nonstarter with the Taiwanese people, but nonetheless its success or failure in Hong Kong is important to showing whether the mainland can be trusted.
So the mass protests in Hong Kong earlier this month against a repressive national security law are grist for Taiwan’s pro-independence forces, and have even succeeded in throwing the pro-reunification parties on the defensive. In an interview with the AWSJ last week, President Chen accused China of breaking its promises to Hong Kong and taking away the city’s freedoms. He also highlighted China’s refusal to allow the World Health Organization to give Taiwan observer status and help the island fight the outbreak of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome.
Mr. Chen is bent on winning re-election in next year’s presidential race, and has calculated, probably correctly, that tensions with China will benefit him more than a breakthrough in cross-Strait relations. He may recognize that China has done what he asked in his inaugural speech, and the opportunity for peaceful development of personal and business ties across the Strait is there. But Mr. Chen is pursuing a very cynical strategy that puts his own political career above the welfare of his own people.
Mr. Chen has now returned to his “one country on either side” formulation of last August which makes political talks impossible. For the time being, Beijing is evidently determined not to play into Mr. Chen’s hands by overreacting. That would make it almost impossible for the Kuomintang party and its allies to make the case to voters that they could manage China relations to mutual benefit. Once the threats start flying, emotions take over and no politician can afford to be seen as soft on China.
Of course, Beijing has only itself to blame for being so inflexible on the issue of Taiwan’s entry into the WHO, thus giving Mr. Chen political ammunition. Now it must do penance by sitting quietly as Mr. Chen panders to the pro-independence factions of his ruling Democratic Progressive Party and tries to provoke a mainland reaction. Unfortunately, further concessions on cross-Strait economic ties are unlikely to be sufficient to change the president’s mind at this point.
Beijing’s best chance of salvaging its Taiwan strategy would be signal its commitment to full democracy in Hong Kong after 2007, and to reconsider its blocking of the island’s application for WHO membership. Since both of those moves are extremely unlikely, those of us who have both Taiwan’s and China’s best interests at heart must reconcile ourselves to the fact that a precious opportunity for peaceful reconciliation is slipping away. Perhaps when Taiwanese voters go to the polls next year they will remember that it was their president who failed to follow his own advice about “kindness and virtue.”
Updated July 21, 2003 1:08 a.m.[/quote]