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Experts: China/Taiwan Economic Ties Could Further Unification


As economic ties between China and Taiwan continue to grow, a group of experts in Washington, brought together by the American Enterprise Institute, discussed what impact cross-straits trade has on the political arena.

Cross-straits trade is booming, and China has become Taiwan's largest export market. At the same time, Taiwanese investments in China are estimated at more than $150 billion.

Taking all this into consideration, the panelists at the AEI seminar were asked to answer a basic question: is economics reshaping politics? Or, to put it more specifically, for China and Taiwan, will trade lead to political unification?

For Davidson College Professor Shelley Rigger, the answer is, not necessarily. She points to the example of the United States and Canada, which last year had the world's largest trading relationship.

"We have to look no farther than our northern border to know that people with a similar cultural and historical genesis, who have intense economic interdependency, do not necessarily seek political unification. The Canadian impulse to unify with the United States, is, as far as I can discern, absolutely absent," she noted.

Professor Rigger says she disagrees with people in China, Taiwan and the United States who believe that economic integration automatically leads to political unification.

"And I think that is just very wishful or paranoid thinking. Wishful in Beijing. Wishful, maybe, in Washington. Paranoid in Taiwan. And, that in fact, these [political] forces are much more complicated than they appear," she added.

The panelists also considered the reverse question: have cross-straits political tensions had any effect on economic ties?

The Foreign Policy Research Institute's Terry Cooke says recent history has shown Chinese and Taiwanese businessmen to be relatively oblivious to strains between Beijing and Taipei.

"The underlying pattern of trade has been phenomenally little affected by the political rhetoric and the political postures that various actors have been taking during the [recent] 25-year period."

Mr. Cooke adds, however, that although economics is not the deciding factor in the cross-straits relationship, it may have a growing influence on political calculations in both Taiwan and China (PRC).

This sentiment is echoed by the National Defense University's Phillip Saunders.

"It is [economic ties] certainly not going to take you all the way to, from the PRC perspective, the Promised Land of 'we are all Chinese, we ought to be together.' But I think it is starting to have a constraining effect on Taiwan politics," he explained.

Professor Saunders adds that expanding Chinese economic ties with other countries in the region is also helping Beijing's case.

"I think countries may be less willing to challenge PRC positions on this, due to the economic costs of this. And, again, you see the debate most clearly right now in Australia, where this is a hot political issue," he said.

The issue of trade versus politics has come to the fore in Australia, as the government in Canberra considers political asylum requests from two would-be Chinese defectors. Refugee advocates there accuse Canberra of considering Australia's economic ties to China more important than the rights of Chinese asylum-seekers.

Professor Rigger acknowledges that, although increasing personal and economic interactions across the Taiwan Strait do not automatically lead to unification, such relationships do help reduce tension, hostility and resentment.

"So, they do not necessarily provoke Taiwanese people to seek unification," she said. "But they may diminish the resistance people in Taiwan feel to beginning a process of engaging the PRC in a conversation about the two sides' ultimate future."

She says she believes economic engagement may be China's best hope in the long run. But she added that Chinese moves, such as passing an anti-secession law earlier this year, are not going to persuade the Taiwanese to be willing to talk. The Taiwanese see the Chinese legislation as threatening the island, which Professor Rigger says undermines what she calls "the good work" that has already been done by cross-Straits business partners.

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