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Taiwan treads carefully while seeking closer ties with China
Diplomatic Pouch / July 16, 2015

By Larry Luxner

One of Taiwan’s top ministers outlined his government’s evolving strategy toward mainland China in a keynote speech July 13 at Washington’s Brookings Institution.

Andrew Hsia heads Taiwan’s Mainland Affairs Council (MAC), which co-sponsored the all-day event — “Relations across the Taiwan Strait: Retrospective and Prospects for Future Development” — with Brookings’ Center for Northeast Asian Policy Studies and the Association of Foreign Relations.

In his speech, Hsia noted that since taking office in 2008, Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou has vigorously promoted a mainland policy centered on peace and prosperity, and maintaining the status quo of “no unification, no independence, and no use of force.”

That status quo, which has existed since 1949, enjoys the support of 75 percent of Taiwan’s 23 million people, said Hsia.

Yet over the past seven years, he said, China and Taiwan have begun institutionalized negotiations on economic, trade and security issues to advance the interests and well-being of both countries while safeguarding Taiwan’s security and promoting its economic development.

Last year, the MAC and its counterpart in Beijing, the Taiwan Affairs Office, began to normalize official contact.

“This marks an important milestone in the development of cross-strait relations. It has also lifted cross-strait ties to the greatest level of peace and stability in 66 years,” said Hsia, noting that eight million people cross the Taiwan Strait each year for tourism, business and family visits, while the number of mainland Chinese students studying in Taiwan has jumped from 823 seven years ago to more than 32,000 today.

“Cross-strait Internet users and students discuss current affairs and share points of view across geographical barriers. Taiwan has made an impact in its interactions with rapidly changing mainland China through its unique way of life and the qualities of its pluralistic society,” Hsia told his audience. “These interactions have conveyed the values of democracy, freedom, human rights and the rule of law to guide the mainland towards institutional reforms.”

That has also spilled over to Taiwan's external affairs, he said, giving Taiwan “more latitude for international participation” and earning praise from U.S. officials such as Daniel Russel, assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs, and Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Susan Thornton,

“There are, of course, some who worry if Taiwan has not inclined too much towards China. I’d like to emphasize, however, that the mainland’s rise has presented a new international situation and order that has prompted many major countries, as well as the surrounding region, to successively adjust interaction strategies and strengthen political and economic relations with the Chinese mainland. Taiwan, as the mainland’s next-door neighbor, is particularly unable to ignore this change.”

Despite Taipei’s overtures to Beijing, he said, the island’s economic dependence on the mainland has fallen from pre-2008 levels.

“The two sides are still unable to establish real mutual trust,” he said. “The mainland has never understood why its expressions of goodwill to Taiwan have failed to win the hearts of the Taiwanese people.”

According to public opinion polls commissioned by MAC, up to 60 percent of Taiwanese say the mainland is unfriendly toward their island.

“Many of my friends around the world tell me that the mainland’s confidence is growing, but personally, I think the mainland is actually fearful facing an uncertain future and afraid that it might lose all that it has gained. This has prompted it to constantly adopt safeguards and precautions that frequently touch on deep water regions and sensitive areas,” he said.

One example, said Hsia, is Beijing’s “attempt to break the intangible and tangible boundaries” across the Taiwan Strait.

“The mainland has recently rolled out a series of unilateral measures aimed at Taiwan (such as the establishment of the M503 air route, implementation of visa-free treatment and card-formed Mainland Travel Permits for Taiwan residents, passage of Taiwan-related provisions under the National Security Law, and proposals to ‘ensure the practice of one country, two systems and advance China's reunification in accordance with the law.’ This has met with outcries in Taiwan,” he said.

Even worse, he said, “they have placed roadblocks at every turn to block Taiwan’s participation in NGOs relevant to the peoples’ livelihood, regional economic integration participation, and bilateral FTA negotiation with other countries. As such, the mainland’s contradictory initiatives in response to developments in Taiwan have, in some respects, had the unintended effect of widening the psychological distance between the two sides. This has created the predicament of a self-fulfilling prophecy in which ‘the more one cares, the easier it is for one to lose.’”

But Hsia says he’s convinced that these difficulties will eventually be resolved.

“Tensions and conflicts have inevitably appeared in the past 20-plus years of cross-strait relations. However, relations will ultimately return to the ‘moderate path’ of putting the people’s well-being first. Regardless of how the situation evolves, the welfare of the people must be considered, and the mainland must also fulfill its responsibilities to maintain cross-strait peace,” he concluded. “The world is one family. Taiwan, as a peacemaker, cannot be excluded from international affairs and marginalizing Taiwan will only lead to alienation and resentment.”

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