Taiwan and China building beneficial relationship

Friday , April 19, 2013 - 11:45 AM

Arthur I. Cyr

In pursuing current events, as in playing cards, evaluating the wider atmosphere is as important as studying the specific hand one has been dealt. Our current focus on North Korea’s alarming rhetoric, and China’s caution in efforts to rein in its problem child, is understandable. As a complement, consider developments in wider Asia.

That broader perspective must include Taiwan, where extremely encouraging events are unfolding vis-a-vis mainland China.

On Monday, Taiwan President Ma Ying-jeou discussed progress via video with a Stanford University audience. Former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice moderated the session, which was widely viewed around the United States.

Last week, Taiwan’s government advanced to parliament a bill to let Beijing open an official representative office on the island.

The governing Kuomintang (KMT) Party controls the Taiwan legislature, and the proposal should become law quickly. This will facilitate China reciprocating relatively quickly. Neither side is using formal terms of diplomacy, such as consulate or embassy, but that is how the facilities would function.

The reality is that stable relations and de facto recognition, without fussy formalities, are moving steadily forward. The two sides were once harsh ideological rivals sharing a bitter legacy of battle and blood.

Yet beyond this legacy, a firm foundation of cooperation between Taiwan and mainland China steadily expands. In November 2008, historic negotiations concluded with comprehensive trade agreements, including direct shipping, expansion of weekly passenger flights from 36 to 108, and introduction of up to 60 cargo flights per month.

In 2010, the bilateral Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement was concluded. This has been a major triumph for Ma, leader of the KMT and former mayor of Taipei. His election and re-election to the presidency in 2008 and 2012 has led to reduced tensions and increased cooperation with Beijing.

In a 2006 visit to New York, Ma emphasized the 1992 agreement with Beijing to accept the concept of “one China” while differing on specifics. That accord is fundamental to the fitful but forward collaboration. Ma’s dramatic reaffirmation of this understanding while in America’s financial capital was shrewd politics.

Pragmatism characterizes Taiwan’s approach to mainland China. Following Washington’s formal diplomatic recognition of Beijing in 1978, a process begun by President Richard Nixon’s 1972 visit, Taipei immediately launched a comprehensive, essentially non-confrontational, strategic response.

Consular offices around the U.S. were expanded. State government officials, along with members of Congress, were assiduously courted. Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton was among those who visited Taiwan. Positive congressional ties became an especially important priority, which clearly paid dividends over the years. Continued U.S. arms aid is one result.

Taiwan has become an essential investor for the enormous industrial revolution taking place on the mainland. Commercially successful, generally well-educated overseas Chinese, in turn, are a vital source of capital for the mainland. Expatriate Chinese also vote in Taiwan elections.

The 2008 and 2010 agreements are not only inherently important but a useful barometer of relations between China and Taiwan. From time to time, U.S. arms aid to Taiwan has threatened to derail cooperation -- but the process survives. Ending economic cooperation now would bring enormous costs.

The Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement now stands as a historic milestone in China’s peaceful integration. Beijing from time to time has delayed but not destroyed this now definitive dialogue.

So far, trade and investment have trumped ideology.

Arthur I. Cyr is Clausen Distinguished Professor at Carthage College in Kenosha, Wis., and author of “After the Cold War.” Email acyr@carthage.edu.

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