Taiwan's election and grand Chinese peace

IN THE Chinese government's eyes it has two rebellious provinces on its plate — Tibet and Taiwan — and both are in a volatile state. In Tibet protestors are clashing with police and soldiers. In Taiwan there is no occupation but 1,000 Chinese missiles are pointed at its heart.

By Jonathan Power (World View)

Published: Mon 24 Mar 2008, 8:23 AM

Last updated: Sun 5 Apr 2015, 4:27 PM

The Tibetans, by and large, no longer try and argue for independence, but even the notion of autonomy is not acceptable to Beijing. In marked contrast, while confronting Taiwan and its significant independence movement, the Chinese offer autonomy as long as Taiwan will accept sovereign rule from Beijing. At the moment, however, there are no takers, neither in the outgoing government of President Chen Shui-bian's Democratic Progressive Party, which likes to talk about independence and membership of the UN, nor in the opposition party descended from the Nationalists of China, settled by a retreating General Chiang Kai-shek, which for historical reasons has a soft spot for "One China".

During the eight years of Chen's rule Taiwan's China debate has matured at a fast rate. Chen may not have won many converts to his independence line (which is supported by about 30 per cent of the voters) but he has undoubtedly shifted the terms of the debate. He has persuaded the electorate that they must never kow tow to China. At the same time they have been convinced by the opposition that Taiwan should not provoke China.

In broad terms it might seem that this is just the policy of the status quo. Neither independence nor union. In many aspects this is so. But it is not the same status quo as eight years ago — it is both more independent (not independence) minded and more conciliatory.

Looked at this way, now that the Nationalists' leader Ma Ying-jeou has won the presidency, the relationship between Beijing and Taipei is becoming not just more mature, but healthier and less confrontational. As Ma says it could go on like this for 50 years before union is seriously discussed. Intellectuals in Taiwan have always hoped for a consensus on a long timetable because by then democracy may have arrived in China itself. Maybe Beijing by then would countenance a loose confederation, rather like Britain had until relatively recently with what it called its "Dominions", Australia and Canada.

There is much to suggest that in Beijing the tea leaves are being read in a similar way. Despite Chen's continuous stream of provocative remarks and policy suggestions, President Hu Jintao is as conciliatory as a communist leader can be, much more low key in his approach than his predecessors. At the Party Congress held soon after he came to power he deleted harsh words on Taiwan from his keynote speech. His offer of a peace treaty, although framed within the "One China" policy, has many conciliatory elements. Mr Hu, unlike his predecessors, does not talk of using force.

The next few years are going to be interesting. One can foresee a raft of new measures: direct air links on a permanent daily basis, direct banking links, shipping and freight links, the lowering of trade barriers and a sharp step up of the already hefty rate of Taiwanese investment on the mainland.

In Taiwan there will be more Chinese migrant workers, more tourists and more cultural exchanges (Taiwan, thanks to Chiang Kai-shek, holds in its magnificent museum most of the best of the artifacts of China's long civilisation.) There will undoubtedly be much more Chinese investment, which at the moment is rather rare.

By the time the next election comes around in four years' time it is possible to conceive of China standing down its threatening missiles, of Taiwan's and Hong Kong's democracy being looked at with less hostility in Beijing, and a fast growing prosperity on both sides, fuelled by Taiwan's high technology and pots of money for investment and China's willingness to make as many bucks as possible.

It was not that long ago — during the presidency of Bill Clinton — that the U.S. was sending warships to keep the peace in the Straits of Taiwan. Then strategists were writing that if there ever were a new world war Taiwan would be the trigger. Now one should write that Taiwan could be the catalyst for turning the Chinese carnivorous dragon into a vegetarian panda. And maybe having found a peaceful way to deal with Hong Kong and Taiwan Beijing couðld turn its attention to a policy of peaceful coexistence with Tibet.

Jonathan Power is a veteran foreign affairs commentator based in London

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