Giant on the move
Taiwan and China, once bitter political rivals, jubilantly exchanged gifts after upbeat trade talks this week. But the festive atmosphere faded when Taiwan’s top policymaker Lai Shin-yuan reminded visiting Chinese negotiator Chen Yunlin of an ominous, obvious fact: Taiwan’s public feels “uncomfortable” with China aiming missiles at it.
Taiwan accuses China of pointing 1,000 to 1,500 short-range or mid-range missiles in its direction to deter any move toward de jure independence. Taiwan is self-ruled today but China claims it. Missiles, however, weren’t on this week’s can-do agenda. Taiwan’s Beijing-friendly President Ma Ying-jeou has said China-Taiwan talks for now should avoid political issues until more mutual trust accumulates through discussion of lighter topics such as trade.
And Lai’s statement did little good on the surface. Taiwan’s Chinese-language China Times newspaper said the Chinese negotiator replied that Beijing is in no hurry to discuss political issues. Another Taiwan paper, the United Daily News, reported that negotiator told Lai the missile issue would take time to solve.
Was the missile remark another gaffe like this? Or was Lai, who has something to prove, rushing ahead several years or decades, assuming that the two sides had already accumulated enough mutual trust?
There’s another explanation. Taiwan’s image-conscious government, often accused of cozying up to China because of the recent trade talks, just wanted to gain points at home by raising a populist issue. Otherwise, one blogger argues, the anti-China opposition party stands to gain. The party has drawn attention to itself by leading tens of thousands to protest against the Chinese negotiator’s Dec. 21-25 visit to Taiwan.
When Taiwan President Ma Ying-jeou was elected ruling Nationalist Party (KMT) chairman in July, pundits jumped on the idea that he would use his new title to help secure a meeting with China’s President Hu Jintao. The first-of-a-kind summit would follow six decades of strained relations including China’s threats of military force against the island.
Ma’s new job, which he will take in mid-October, allows him to meet Communist Party Chairman Hu in a party-to-party role, laying aside each side’s presidential title. China does not recognise Taiwan’s presidency or other government institutions as it claims sovereignty over the self-ruled island.
Chronically isolated Taiwan found a powerful new friend over the past year – its once bitter adversary China. But as Taiwan President Ma Ying-jeou, a leading figure behind that friendship, reaches his first anniversary in office on May 20, the two sides have shown they’re ready to back away from each other again.
Ma’s first year saw what few could have imagined even two years ago, never mind 60, when Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalists fled to Taiwan from China after losing the Chinese civil war to Mao Zedong’s Communists. China still claims sovereignty over democratic, self-ruled Taiwan and has threatened to take it by force if necessary. It has said the two sides must ultimately be united.
Police should have brought sandwiches and sodas to the park outside a Taipei hotel where Taiwan negotiators and counterparts from old foe China held talks. Hardly anyone demonstrated against the mid-April meeting.
What’s more, over the weekend, as the two sides met more formally in China to sign agreements on trade and finance, Taiwan TV viewers watched news about swine flu in Mexico and the United States or celebrity scandal reruns. Monday morning newspapers’ editorials barely raised the usual spectre of Taiwan sacrificing its democratic self-rule to Communist China in exchange for lucrative trade deals.