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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