The year 2001 began with ships from Taiwan making the first legal crossing to China in more than 50 years. But the symbolic progress signified by that event did not lead to further momentum in relations between Beijing and Taipei.
In this report, VOA's Stephanie Mann looks at what many analysts agree is a continuing stalemate across the Taiwan Straits.
On January 2, 2001, three ships sailed from Taiwan's offshore islands of Quemoy and Matsu, and their delegations received a warm welcome at the Chinese port city of Xiamen.
The symbolic crossing of the Taiwan Straits was seen as a first step toward opening up direct shipping, air travel and postal service between China and Taiwan, still considered a renegade province by Beijing. Taiwan specialist Bruce Dickson, at George Washington University, says the ship-crossings resulted from Taiwan President Chen Shui-bian's initiative for gradual trade and travel connections, or mini-links with the mainland, but did not set a pattern for the months to come. "I think what happened was Taiwan has been trying to figure out how to both promote economic ties with the mainland without fully sacrificing its economic interests and caving in too much to Beijing's demands for recognizing a one-China principle and recognizing Taiwan's ultimate unification with the mainland," he says. "Much of the enthusiasm for what was called the mini-three links at the beginning of 2001 began to dissipate because China sort of had a ho hum reaction to it and didn't respond the way that President Chen Shui-bian had hoped."
Michael Swaine, a China specialist at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, says full direct air, maritime and postal contacts are not likely to occur anytime soon because they are directly related to the question of Taiwan's status. "The mainland has essentially stated that it does not want to establish these contacts unless and until Taiwan acknowledges that there is one China. The Taiwan government is hesitant to do this, and therefore it is not moving ahead with these contacts," he says.
Although direct trade is still banned, indirect trade between China and Taiwan totaled $31 billion in the year 2000, and the cumulative total of Taiwanese investment on the mainland is more than $60 billion. Many analysts expect that to increase, given that China and Taiwan are each joining the World Trade Organization. And President Chen this year decided to ease the dollar limit on Taiwanese corporate investment in China and lift the ban on investments in high-tech and infrastructure projects.
Despite their growing economic integration, political dialogue between Taipei and Beijing remains at a stalemate. Talks broke down in the 1990's because China saw decisions by then-Taiwan President Lee Teng-hui as moving toward independence. Beijing became even more suspicious after Chen Shui-bian was elected in 2000, as Bruce Dickson explains. "Now with Chen Shui-bian as president of Taiwan, his reluctance to really embrace the one-China principle that China has demanded, China has been unwilling to resume negotiations with the Taiwan government until he does that," he says. "He has political constraints that prevent him from doing so. His own party is officially committed to the independence of Taiwan and therefore opposed to reunification. The one-China principle assumes that Taiwan will eventually be reunified. So, they're frozen at this point, where Chen cannot acquiesce to China's demands. China can't back off from those demands for their own political reasons."
Mr. Dickson says a small window of opportunity early in 2002 may allow the two sides to resume negotiations, after a new Taiwan parliament and cabinet are in place and before Chinese leaders become preoccupied with preparations for the Communist Party Congress later in 2002.
But Michael Swaine doubts that either side will be able to make the concessions necessary to resume serious talks, and he thinks the stalemate may continue for a long time. "I think there is a view within the Chen Shui-bian government that that government has said as much as it can say to make overtures toward the mainland and to be moderate toward the mainland and it's really up to the mainland now to make a response to that," he says. "When you look at the mainland side, I don't see that you're going to have a basis for a radical initiative there either, because during this period prior to the 16th party congress the focus of these leaders in China is to develop their own political positions, to pay attention to domestic situations, and they don't want to take the risks that could be involved in any kind of radical initiatives toward Taiwan."
China has never renounced the possible use of force to reunify Taiwan with the mainland. And in 2001, the United States eased its procedure for weapons sales to Taiwan and announced an expanded list of arms available to Taiwan, including offensive equipment, such as submarines and anti-ship missiles.
Michael Swaine says Taiwan is also trying to develop its own missiles with an offensive capability. "The possibility is that Taiwan is developing what people would consider short range ballistic missiles, or a short range ballistic missile which is less than or approaching 1,000 kilometers in range, which is about 600 to 700 miles. So that is a missile which is by and large designed for what are called counter force purposes, which is to attack military sites on mainland China in the event of a conflict between China and Taiwan."
Michael Swaine and Bruce Dickson agree Taiwan has been engaged in a debate over the nature of its defense force. So far, Mr. Swaine says, Taiwan's military doctrine is based on the need to repel a Chinese attack and to defend itself if Chinese forces land on the island. He says policymakers are trying to decide if Taiwan should maintain a purely defensive force and rely on the United States to come to its aid, or if they should acquire a stronger deterrent, that is, the capability to strike the mainland.
Part of VOA's Year End Series for 2001