China has offered a series of proposals to Taiwan over the past half decade to develop stronger ties with the self-ruled island. Beijing wants Taiwan under its control after 65 years of self-rule. Investment and trade deals have won approval on the island, but some of China’s more ambitious projects are falling short as Taiwanese worry about getting too close.
Among the proposals offered by Chinese officials are a bridge, or tunnel, linking the mainland to the island and joint administration of a China-controlled island between the two sides. The two sides are meeting in China this week, but are unlikely to touch these items.
Taiwan has hinted that such mega projects will not work. Liu Yi-jiun, a public affairs professor at Fo Guang University in Taiwan, thinks the public will resist moves that hint of unification.
“To reunify two different sides of the Taiwan Strait is a very clear goal. However, we have to take into consideration how Taiwanese people really think. On the one hand, mainland China is willing to try anything to try to get more goodwill on the part of Taiwan. However, Taiwan, because its size is too small, population too little, people here are very skeptical about how much we can get,” said Yi-Jiun.
Taiwan split from China following a civil war in 1949, but Beijing still regards it as a breakaway province that will someday be reunified with the mainland. Beijing’s attempts to reclaim Taiwan hindered most links until 2008, when the island’s president, Ma Ying-jeou, put aside political issues to build trust through trade and investment agreements. The two sides have reached 19 such deals during Ma's term.
A 2008 agreement to allow mainland Chinese to visit Taiwan has stoked the island’s service sector. More than two million mainland tourists arrived last year. Taiwan will raise its quota this year on independent Chinese travelers from 3,000 to 4,000 per day. Two-way trade following an economic cooperation pact signed in 2010 surpassed $100 billion in 2010. Taiwan has also lowered barriers to mainland Chinese investment.
China welcomes these moves as a way to commingle economies, part of its goal for eventual reunification. However, Taiwan has ignored a proposal for an $80 billion bridge or tunnel across the 160-kilometer Taiwan Strait by 2030, a symbol of unity. Taiwanese investors prefer the internationalized, developed Shanghai area to nearby Pingtan Island, which Chinese officials have picked as a test case for joint rule. A deal liberalizing service trade with China is stuck in Taiwan’s parliament.
Alexander Huang, professor of strategic studies at Tamkang University, in Taiwan, noted the political barriers in Taiwan to further cooperation. Those barriers will keep Beijing's loftier ambitions off the table when the two ministries, Taiwan's Mainland Affairs Council and Beijing's Taiwan Affairs Office, meet again in the future.
“Some [issues] involve domestic politics in Taiwan or different interests of business and industry. I don’t think it will be put on the MAC-TAO agenda any time soon,” said Huang.
Huang Chun-jung, southern district head of the student association Taiwan Youth Public Affairs, said Taiwanese people will oppose plans that breach autonomy.
Huang said Taiwan and China are basically enemies for now, and that people on the island can accept some economic proposals from the other side, but not all. China’s ideas, Huang said, must not violate Taiwanese autonomy.
Beijing is expected to propose new pro-Taiwan schemes as the island readies for the 2016 presidential election. Ma Ying-jeou cannot run for office again due to term limits, and Beijing wants to impress voters so they replace him with a president friendly to China rather than one favoring greater Taiwanese independence.