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Taiwan Searching for New Ways to Connect with Rival China

  • Ralph Jennings

FILE - Flags of China and Taiwan flutter next to each other during a rally calling for peaceful reunification, days before the inauguration ceremony of President Tsai Ing-wen, in Taipei, Taiwan, May 14, 2016.

Taiwanese politicians, spurred by a presidential call to action, are studying new ways they can interact with rival China to break an uneasy 15-month stalemate that has hurt Taiwan’s diplomacy and economy.

Ways to approach China

Ideas such as an informal exchange of scholars and a do-not-do list, both requiring approval by both sides, may be put on the table for discussion after Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen told her ruling Democratic Progressive Party Sunday it must develop a new method of interacting with China.

“My personal view is that we should come up with some sort of not-to-do list,” ruling party legislator Lo Chih-cheng said. He cited competition for diplomatic allies as one thing to avoid. “In other words, there are things that both sides should refrain themselves from doing in order not to destabilize the status quo.”

The party, which includes numerous supporters of a more distant Taiwan-China relationship, faces the core challenge of finding new ways that China will accept.

Frosty relations under President Tsai

China cut off talks a month after Tsai took office in May 2016 because she rejected its long-standing dialogue condition that each side first see itself as part of “one China.” Beijing claims sovereignty over self-ruled, democratic Taiwan and insists the two sides eventually unite despite opinion surveys showing most Taiwanese oppose that fate.

Since then the militarily and economically larger mainland has shown impatience, analysts say, by scaling back tourist arrivals to Taiwan, passing an aircraft carrier around the island and persuading two other countries to switch diplomatic recognition from Taipei to Beijing.

“The real issue is why Taipei and Beijing cannot get connected,” said Alexander Huang, strategic studies professor at Tamkang University in Taiwan. “Beijing wanted to have reassurances from Taipei before interaction.

“The new framework cannot be defined or pre-defined by one party,” he said. “So both sides should sit down and come up with a new framework and co-define a new relationship.”

Searching for ways

Tsai has been ramping up to a new proposal for ties with China over much of the year to date, scholars believe. Many in Taiwan, even if unwilling to unite with their Communist neighbor, want closer ties with its $11.2 trillion economy. Tsai told her party’s 17th national congress Sunday to avoid hating China or “blindly pleasing” it.

The president wants to come to terms with a “rising China,” Lo said. “We have to do it in a realistic way,” he said. To move in that direction, he added, the government has kept open trade and tourism links.

China and Taiwan have been separately ruled since Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalists lost the Chinese civil war of the 1940s to the Communists and re-based their government on the island 160 kilometers away. Dialogue has been sparse since then. China also has threatened the use of force, if needed, to make the two sides unite

Friendlier relations under President Ma Ying-jeou.

But they talked regularly under Taiwan’s ex-president Ma Ying-jeou, who also headed the more China-friendly Nationalist Party. His government accepted Beijing’s one-China precondition for dialogue during his 2008-2016 term. The two sides signed more than 20 deals, most covering trade, travel and investment.

Among the ideas suggested to today’s ruling party might be an informal exchange of scholars backed by their governments to understand the other side’s bottom lines, analysts in Taipei say.

Scholars are already brainstorming their own ideas for new ways the two sides could interact, said Lin Chong-pin, a retired professor and former Taiwan deputy defense minister.

“What will make things work are not words exchanged publicly,” Lin said. “The actions taken under the table, that is the key -- scholars, actually secret envoys, things like that.”

The party might be angling toward a “framework” that covers dialogue and other aspects of interaction, Huang suggested.

There are significant differences

Any interaction should account for a “gap in values” between the two sides or risk being seen as hollow sayings, cautioned New Power Party legislator Hsu Yung-ming.

He pointed to China’s prosecution of Taiwanese activist Lee Ming-che, who was charged with subverting state power after using social media to discuss democracy with Chinese nationals. Taiwan would regard the same case as freedom of speech.

“These (engagement with China) sayings will make everyone think they’re promotional words only” against the Lee Ming-che backdrop, Hsu said. “When you put it into action, a gap exists. The gap in values is the biggest problem.”

Patience

Tsai did not give a timeline for formulating a new way of relating with China, party spokesman Wang Min-sheng said. He knew of no ideas offered since Sunday but said party members were free to raise them – though no one would be forced.

“I think for party members with ideas, there will be a channel to raise them,” Wang said. “That way those of us in the party with ideas are free to express them.”

China will want to be seen taking a lead in announcing any new interaction framework, Lin said, because it’s bigger than Taiwan, he added.

But Taiwan will come up with the better ideas, Lo guessed.

“I think China is so rigid,” he said. “We are more creative, innovative, in terms of coming up with new ideas, new terminologies. But the problem now is the lack of mutual trust between the two sides.”

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