Taiwan demonstrations against China overshadow profound cross-strait cooperation
Thursday , March 27, 2014 - 12:40 PM
Student and activist demonstrators opposed to cooperation with China have occupied the Taiwan parliament building for a week, an unprecedented event. Angry occupiers fear Beijing. The Cold War is over, but the legacy lingers along with the practical problems of getting a job even in today’s rich economy.
Yet enormous trade and investment bridging the Taiwan Strait reflect powerful practical forces bringing the two sides together. In the relationship, tiny Taiwan in fact has major advantages over enormous China.
Consider Google. Two years ago, a partnership began with the National Palace Museum in Taiwan to display art works online, part of a larger initiative engaging 150 art museums worldwide.
This has political as well as aesthetic significance. The National Palace Museum was formed in 1925 in Beijing’s Forbidden City, comprised of the art works owned by the imperial family. After Japan invaded Manchuria in 1931, the collection was moved several times before arriving in Taiwan in 1948.
In recent years, there have been continuing tensions between Internet companies and the Beijing government, which is determined to censor politically touchy topics. The communist regime blocks Web sites that discuss the Dalai Lama, the Falun Gong religious movement, the violent suppression of protestors in Tiananmen Square, and many others. Since 2010, there has been a restriction on searches of the English term ‘freedom.’
Google that year moved China search services to Hong Kong. By contrast, Cisco has been criticized for cooperating with Beijing in the ‘Great Firewall’ censorship system. Microsoft agreed with Baidu, the dominant Web search provider in China, to censor their Bing search service.
These developments and others have taken place in the context of rapidly expanding broader economic cooperation. In early November 2008, historic transport accords were reached, including direct shipping, expansion of weekly passenger flights from 36 to 108, and introduction of cargo flights up to a maximum of 60 per month.
In the summer of 2010, the comprehensive Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement (ECFA) took effect. On February 11 this year the two sides made history by agreeing to exchange formal representative offices. The word ‘embassy’ is not used, but this amounts to diplomatic recognition.
The rapprochement is a major triumph for President Ma Ying-jeou, leader of the Kuomintang Party (KMT), who was reelected in 2012. In a 2006 visit to New York, Ma emphasized the 1992 formal agreement with Beijing to accept the concept of “one China” but differ on specifics. That accord has been fundamental to continuing cooperation.
Pragmatism consistently has characterized 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.
Taiwan is now essential investor in the gigantic industrial revolution taking 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. Steadily increasing cooperation between mainland China and Taiwan is greatly facilitated by formal intergovernmental agreements, but such accords reflect powerful natural market trends which will continue despite the Taiwan protests.
Throughout the Cold War, the United States government was remarkably consistent in encouragement of artistic and scientific exchanges. Indirectly, intellectual exchange served to mute political conflict.
Regarding Taiwan and the mainland, sharing National Palace Museum treasures subtly encourages cooperation, and symbolizes the enormous economic convergence.
Arthur I. Cyr is Clausen Distinguished Professor at Carthage College and author of ‘After the Cold War’ (Macmillan/Palgrave and NYU Press). He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org