For decades, the Taiwan Strait, which separates mainland China from the island of Taiwan, was considered one of the most likely spots on the globe for military hostilities to break out. Now that seems less likely than ever before.
The meeting Tuesday in the eastern Chinese city of Nanjing between Zhang Zhijun, who heads the Taiwan Affairs Office for the People’s Republic of China, and his Taiwanese counterpart, Wang Yu-chi, was the first face-to-face encounter between officials of the two nations in 65 years. Little of immediate substance resulted, but the cordial pledges of further direct talks in the months to come show how much the China-Taiwan relationship has changed in recent years.
Still, there’s stubborn resistance to further accommodation on both sides of the strait. China, insisting that Taiwan is part of the mainland motherland, will accept nothing less than eventual control of the island. In Taiwan, there’s deep distrust of Beijing and powerful support for the quasi-independence and democratic freedoms that the island enjoys.
Beijing’s “one China” policy “runs directly up against enormous resistance in Taiwan,” said Alan D. Romberg, a Taiwan expert who directs the East Asia program for The Stimson Center, a research center in Washington. That tempers Romberg’s view of Tuesday’s meeting.
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“I think that this was an important step, but I don’t think it can be fairly termed a ‘breakthrough’ in transforming cross-strait relations,” he said.
Known officially as the Republic of China, Taiwan’s government retreated to the island in 1949 after losing to Mao Zedong’s communist forces in the Chinese civil war. Ever since, China has refused to recognize Taiwan’s sovereignty, one reason this week’s minor meeting was handled so delicately and garnered so much international attention.
Less than two decades ago, it appeared that China would be going to war with Taiwan, possibly drawing in the United States. In 1995 and 1996, China fired missiles off the coast of Taiwan in the run-up to the island’s first democratic elections. China’s submarine fleet prowls the crucial shipping lanes that separate the two nations.
Up until the 9/11 terrorist attacks, many security experts considered the Taiwan Strait to be the most likely locale for a military crisis involving nuclear powers. War games were premised on how China might respond if the U.S. Navy or Air Force counterattacked after a Chinese assault on the island. But relations have improved markedly since then. In 2008, Ma Ying-jeou came to power in Taiwan, replacing a president who’d antagonized Beijing with talk of seeking formal independence. Since then, discussions between the countries have evolved – involving semi-governmental organizations only – as economic ties grew. That gradual engagement has helped further the economic integration of China and its neighbor.
Trade between China and Taiwan topped $190 billion last year and 3 million Chinese tourists and businesspeople visited the island. Taiwan-based industries have become significant manufacturers in China. Taiwan’s Foxconn, for instance, is the world’s largest contract manufacturer, and it assembles products for Apple and other tech companies on China’s mainland.
Despite the cross-strait detente, Taiwan remains a source of strain for the United States and China that’s disproportionate to its size. A recent survey by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace asked elites in both countries what was compromising their relationship. While many Americans said they distrusted Beijing because of its trade practices and human rights record, in China the biggest source of tension was U.S. military aid to Taiwan.
On Tuesday, the State Department said it welcomed the government-to-government talks, with spokeswoman Jen Psaki saying, “We encourage authorities in Beijing and Taipei to continue their constructive dialogue.”
Chinese state media also praised the meeting, with the China Daily calling it “a promising new starting point” in an editorial.
The choice of Nanjing revealed some of the optics involved for Tuesday’s talk. Before being routed by Mao and fleeing to Taiwan, Chiang Kai-shek twice had made Nanjing his capital.
Both sides agreed this week to resume government-level discussions in the months ahead, with Zhang accepting an invitation by Wang to visit Taiwan.
Romberg, however, said he was disappointed that this week’s talks couldn’t reach agreement on basic points, such as Beijing’s desire for a trade services agreement and Taiwan’s push for consular visits to its citizens detained in China.
“If they can’t find their way around that,” he said, “then it really does suggest that, so far at least, the accomplishments are rather limited.”