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China-Taiwan Detente

Highlights

China-Taiwan Detente, S Madhusudhana Rao, breakaway, Nationalist Republic of China. Against this background, the meeting of top Chinese and Taiwanese officials comes as a surprise.

Winds of friendship are blowing between the mainland China and its ‘breakaway’ island Taiwan. Since the Chinese civil war in 1949, both countries have held government-to-government high-level talks, signaling détente for the first time in six decades. Though there was no official word about the four-day talks being held in Nanjing, China, they are seen as part of confidence-building measures.

The two countries have been at loggerheads ever since nationalist leader Chiang Kai Shek fled China and made Taiwan the headquarters of the Nationalist Republic of China in 1950 and challenged the Communist rulers. While Communism and Socialism thrived in the mainland under different strongmen until it embraced capitalism in the 1980s, Taiwan had followed an independent path of its own drawing its inspiration from the Western models of government under the protective wings of the US.

China does not consider Taiwan as a country and any talk of independence is frowned upon by Chinese leaders who treat it as one of its provinces although Taiwan has been holding polls to parliament and electing presidents. It also has emerged as one of the top industrial countries in the world. The friction between the two has never diminished with Beijing threats of takeover looming large over the island and issuing advisories to other countries not to recognise Taiwan. The ‘One China’ vision has always been on the minds of Chinese leaders and they make no bones about the policy in talks with Western leaders.

Against this background, the meeting of top Chinese and Taiwanese officials comes as a surprise. Earlier, the parleys used to be between organisations aimed at promoting friendship between the two peoples. The statements issued by the respective heads of both sides to the meeting and issued by the official media indicate that they are eager to establish high-level contacts before giving a big push to the ‘aspirations’ of people.

Zhang Zhijun, head of mainland China's Taiwan Affairs Office, said: "It's impossible to imagine in the past that we could sit here and meet. We must have some imagination if [we want to] resolve some difficulties, not just for such a meeting, we should also have a bigger imagination for cross-strait future development."

Wang Yu-chi, head of Taiwan's Mainland Affairs Council, described the meeting as "a new chapter for cross-strait relations. For us to simply sit at the same table, sit down to discuss issues, is already not an easy thing."

The meeting was important for both China and Taiwan from the point of improving over half a century of fractured relations and the developments are keenly followed by the US and its allies in the region like South Korea and Japan for strategic reasons. Though a reunion is ruled out – nobody sees such prospects just after a round of talks – the US is committed to defending Taiwan (despite the fact that it has not recognised it as an independent country) in case China tries to forcefully occupy the island.

At the same time, Washington does not want to rub Beijing on the wrong side by unnecessarily raking up a contentious issue where national and ethnic feelings are involved. Similarly, Taiwan calls itself the “Republic of China” and claims the mainland too, although it desists itself from brazenly saying so in public. In other words, China, Taiwan and the US have a tacit understanding that they won’t nudge each other to score a few brownie points and disturb the decades-old military stand-off. This arrangement has been working and none of the trio wants to derange it.

Now, the new trust-building move has brought in a new element that is likely to help ease the underlying tensions among the three as well as in the region over a period of time for the simple reason that economy, trade and development have become the overriding factors in the 21st century. With a growing clout, China, despite its differences with a number of regional countries, wants to mould its relations with Taiwan in such a manner as to move it out of American sphere of influence by not showing its teeth but by flashing a smile.

In fact, it started way back in 2008 when Ma Ying-jeou was elected President. Seen as a pro-Chinese leader, he set in motion what is known as Cross-Strait ties with flights followed by hordes of tourists which automatically had led to two-way transfer of technology and massive Taiwanese investment in China.

The growing trade ties may be a win-win situation for both. However, fears too are growing among the Taiwanese that Chinese goods are swamping local markets and such flood of products from the mainland is detrimental to the industry. That’s a big concern and the situation is viewed as China conquering Taiwan with soft-sell without resorting to any harsh measure. The trade boost began in 2010 when the two sides signed a pact, known as Services Trade Agreement, either reducing or eliminating tariffs on thousands of products followed by another agreement earlier this year which together have given further fillip to the two-way trade. Having firmed up the trade ties, China and Taiwan seem to be on a course to narrow down their political and ideological differences.

It is a good example of how two rivals can bridge their differences and move forward, keeping aside the contentious issues, for mutual benefit. Can India and Pakistan take a cue from China-Taiwan détente?

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