Taiwan Strait: How One Security Concern in Asia Is Quietly Easing

Taiwan's Lien Chan met with China's Xi Jinping and nobody freaked out. Why that's good news for cross-strait ties.

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Central News Agency / Handout / Reuters

Taiwan's honorary Kuomintang Party chairman Lien Chan, left, shakes hands with China's Communist Party chief Xi Jinping in Beijing on Feb. 25, 2013

Eight years ago, when Taiwan’s Lien Chan visited China for the first time since fleeing as a child amid civil war in 1946, the senior Kuomintang (KMT) politician was celebrated as a courageous emissary on the mainland and reviled as a turncoat by many proindependence activists at home. A former Premier and Vice President of Taiwan, Lien meeting with China’s President Hu Jintao was a major news event closely watched on both sides of the Taiwan Strait for signs of how the oft-fraught relationship between China and Taiwan might progress. This week Lien is in China once again, this time meeting with Hu’s successor, Xi Jinping. And while his trip has been dutifully covered by media in China and Taiwan, there is none of the excitement attached to his 2005 trip. As Lien met on Monday with Xi the biggest cross-strait story was that the Oscar for best director that had just been awarded to Ang Lee, a Taiwan native who is celebrated in China and whose film Life of Pi was widely watched in the mainland.

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That Lien’s visit wasn’t big news in China or Taiwan is good news for the region. At a time when North Korea’s new leader Kim Jong Un has showed, through a missile launch and a nuclear test, that he is pursuing the weapons path of his late father, and China is embroiled in territorial disputes with Japan over islands in the East China Sea and Southeast Asian neighbors, particularly Vietnam and the Philippines over claims to the South China Sea, it is a welcome relief that cross-strait spats no longer go ballistic. In 1995 and 1996, China fired missiles at and over Taiwan to voice its displeasure with the latter’s independence-minded President Lee Teng-hui, which lead to U.S. President Bill Clinton dispatching two aircraft-carrier groups to the region. To be sure, Beijing has never ruled out using force to recover Taiwan, which has been self-ruled since the end of China’s civil war in 1949. But the prospect of cross-strait shooting war has never felt more distant.

It wasn’t always so. The eight-year presidency of Lee’s successor, Chen Shui-bian, saw a sharp deterioration in cross-strait ties. Chen, of the independence-leaning Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), pushed for greater recognition of Taiwan internationally, and Beijing tried to isolate him through measures like the 2006 Anti-Secession Law, which approved the use of military force to reunite Taiwan if the island tried to formalize its independence. Shi Yong, a professor at the Chinese Academy of Social Science’s Institute of Taiwan Studies in Beijing, says relations improved after the 2008 election of Ma Ying-jeou, which brought Lien’s KMT back to power. “Since 2008 both the Chinese Communist Party and the Kuomintang have been willing to implement a shared vision of cross-strait peaceful development,” he says. “Since 2008 the two parties have reached mutual political trust, and based on that trust relations across the strait has made huge progress.”

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State media reported that Xi said Taiwan could become part of the “great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation,” a theme that Xi has promoted since he was elevated to the post of Chinese Communist Party General Secretary in November. Xi recalled, too, his 17 years in Fujian, the southeastern province that faces Taiwan. Following the signing of an economic agreement in 2010, trade between Taiwan and China has climbed steadily, reaching $168.96 billion last year, up 5.6% from 2011. The number of mainland visitors to Taiwan jumped by 45% to 2.6 million last year after a prohibition on solo travelers was lifted. And more Taiwanese travel to China, with 4 million visiting during the first nine months of last year. Even politicians from Taiwan’s opposition DPP have made trips to the mainland, most notably former Premier Frank Hsieh, who visited in October.

But amid such détente there are signs that China’s authoritarian rulers aren’t fully comfortable with their democratic neighbor and want to closely manage the easing of relations between the two sides. Last week Hsieh announced he had begun using Sina Weibo, the popular Chinese microblogging service, writing in one early message, “True freedom of speech is not whether or not you’re allowed to criticize government officials, but whether you lose your freedom after speaking your mind,” the Taipei Times reported. His account was suspended within the day after a rush of users began following him, the newspaper said, a sign that there is only so much cross-strait closeness the Communist Party is ready to handle.

— With reporting by Gu Yongqiang / Beijing

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MORE: Getting It Strait 


TO the chinese people abroad, in China, and Taiwan. Watch as some in the West seek to divide us, to attempt to forment violence and war amongst us. As a third party observer, and a chinese, from South East Asia, I hope that we Chinese will awaken to the fact that there are some who hide behind the veneer of "Democracy" and "Civil Rights" trying to instigate a war and conflict between the Chinese peoples - a division that will ultimately benefit them.

The people from the Republic of China (Taiwan) embodies the soft power of the Chinese, their traditions, histories and civil rights/liberties. The people from the People's Republic of China embody the hard power of China - with pure military power, economic might and world-beating infrastructure. Combined, the Chinese will become a great power once more and importantly, become a more humanistic while influential member of the world. Already, some in the West begin to fear this and will seek to actively divide us. Be wary of such individuals and know them well. The fastest way to developing human rights and democracy in China is by increasing the per capita income of the Chinese. This was afterall the proven model of development of democracies in Taiwan, Singapore, South Korea which all began with authoritarian governments with economic growth as their main focus first. Likewise, this will be the model for China as well. If you truly want China to have democracy and civil rights, then you will have to work to increase the per capita income of the Chinese peoples.

Look at some Western recommendations and the resulting Arab Spring and "democracy" that was brought to Iraq and Afghanistan. These countries are now left in turmoil with their resources raided by western corporations. Their standards of living are worse than before, and for all that "liberty" they do not have access to good education, work opportunities or even decent sanitation. Watch them closely and learn well. Know to tell lies from deceit.

Sincerely, a RANDOM chinese person.


@seanlimruichun AHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA!  I am not chinese and will never be.

Sincerely, a RANDOM taiwanese person.

turton.michael like.author.displayName like.author.displayName like.author.displayName 3 Like

Ah no wonder. Written by the Beijing correspondent. No wonder there are no Taiwan-centered quotes, nothing from the opposition, no cites from scholars from abroad, etc. No recognition that the faux lack of tensions across the Strait has mean that China has been free to ramp up tensions in the Himal, the Senkakus, the South China Sea.... and while we get informed that Chen Shui-bian is independence leaning (and you know what that means, probably one of those destabilizing pro-democracy weirdos. Shrill or something), we are not informed that Ma and the KMT share the PRC's goal of annexing Taiwan to China. Why are the political views of the KMT omitted? 

"""The eight-year presidency of Lee’s successor, Chen Shui-bian, saw a sharp deterioration in cross-strait ties. """

Yes... a million Taiwanese moved over to China, the Hong Kong-Taipei air route was the busiest on earth, Chen legalized cross-strait investment, direct charter flights were initiated, along with student exchanges, police exchanges, Chinese investment in Taiwan, and a host of other exchanges... almost none of which existed prior to Chen Shui-bian. That's worsening ties, in the media! Is the writer claiming that ties were better under the Chiang dictatorship or the Lee Administration? China dropped artillery shells on Chiang Kai-shek's islands, it threw missiles at Lee Teng-hui's Taiwan, it threw words at Chen Shui-bian. Doesn't worsening ties suck? I wish the media would find another way to describe how China threw a fit when Taiwan elected a longtime pro-democracy activist president.

Maybe someday someone writing on this topic will remember that China-Taiwan history didn't start in 1995. 

Oh well, will be having fun with this on the blog tomorrow. 

Michael Turton

The View from Taiwan



Poor Michael Turbot - I gather you did not like the article, although what exactly got the bug up your behind besides not reiterating your particular version of truth word by word is beyond me.  Can't control what people write in a democracy you know.  If the majority of the people on Taiwan decide they should eventually go with China, does that count in your world?


@Asnbud01 @turton.michael 

LOL. People do write what they want in a democracy. It's why Austin can churn out this Establishment tripe, and I can call him on it. And another great thing about democracy is that even internet trolls can get an education, so they can learn how to spell the names of others properly.