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Taiwanese cool to China’s overtures

TAIPEI – When a Chinese leader speaks on Taiwan, an army of cross-strait observers weighs his words. Phrases and gestures are analyzed, and particular attention is turned on what Beijing’s official chose not to say.

Recently in New York, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao did say that China’s missiles aimed at Taiwan would eventually be removed; Wen did not say that the Taiwanese must first recognize the one-China principle, according to which their island is part of the People’s Republic of China (PRC).

What barely amounted to a complete sentence was picked to pieces. Taiwan’s ruling Kuomintang (KMT) called it evidence of Chinese goodwill. Taiwan’s main opposition party, the pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), flatly dismissed the talk as empty words.

Others, however, saw Beijing’s game plan clearly exposed: after having enticed the rich through the Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement (ECFA) that Taiwan and China signed earlier this year, and the rural population having been lured by large-scale procurements of Taiwanese agricultural products, Beijing aims at lulling Taiwan’s military into passivity. According to China’s alleged assessments, the rest of the population will follow suit.

Yet, if this were China’s strategy, it is showing cracks. It seems neither Taiwan’s military nor the public find Wen’s overtures or, indeed, China in general, particularly trustworthy.

“In fact, many of Taiwan’s military officials oppose the China-Taiwan confidence-building measures currently being established,” says Arthur Ding, research fellow at Taiwan’s National Chengchi University’s China Politics Division in an interview with Asia Times Online. “Taiwan’s military will follow whatever is instructed by the political leadership, yet in general, it is wary of the PRC’s proposals,” Ding says.

The confidence-building measures that Ding refers to are still in their infancy. Nearly coinciding with the signing of the ECFA, a large-scale symposium was held at the Chinese city of Xiamen’s Taiwan Research Institute to bring retired military brass from both sides of the Taiwan Strait together.

Beijing’s suspected plan is plausible: distinguished grey-haired Taiwanese military men who fought or whose father’s fought Mao Zedong’s communists in the Chinese civil war in the late 1940s could function as a direct line to Taiwan’s present-day leadership. This would work as the old Taiwanese, just like their mainland counterparts, had never given up hope on eventual reunification.

Not long after the symposium, People’s Liberation Army spokesman Senior Colonel Geng Yansheng surprised domestic and foreign media by announcing that China’s missiles stationed along Fujian province’s coast could be removed. However, Geng was quick to point out that the disarmament had to be based on the one-China principle.

At that time, Taiwan responded coolly. President Ma Ying-jeou said through his spokesman that only if Beijing removed the missiles without conditions, would this be taken as a step toward improving bilateral relations.

But, barely three months later, Ma finally had his chance to show significantly more enthusiasm. “Taiwan welcomes Wen’s remarks on missiles,” the island’s newspapers’ headlines heralded the day after China’s premier spoke in New York. So why did Wen choose not to insist on the one-China principle this time? Was it because China now says that it is fine if Taiwan never recognizes the government in Beijing as the sole legitimate government of China?
Or has Beijing agreed on the Taiwanese version of the so-called “92 consensus”, according to which both sides agree that although China and Taiwan belong to the same China, as long each side can have its own definition of that one China? Or was the genuine purpose of China’s overtures what parts of Taiwanese military circles suspect: an attempt by Beijing to sow discord among senior officials at Taiwan’s Ministry of Defense, with high-ranking personnel divided over all this goodwill coming from the former arch-enemy?

None of these proposals are right, says Ding. “There was simply no need for Wen Jiabao to mention the one-China principle.” He elaborates, “Wen wasn’t sitting in formal negotiations, so he can make any kind of remark he wants to that sounds attractive. Taiwan’s military is fully aware of the condition imposed by China on a missile withdrawal, and that is the one-China principle.”

An even bigger headache to Beijing than the cold shoulder it is getting from Taiwan’s military is signs that Taiwan’s public doesn’t hold China, the Chinese government or even Chinese civilians in particularly high esteem.

A recent survey by the United Daily News, one of Taiwan’s major newspapers, which intriguingly is strongly pro-KMT and supports the incorporation of Taiwan within China, somewhat rocked the boat. It seems the impression the Taiwanese have about China’s one-party government isn’t overly positive.

The majority of respondents also chose attributes such as “annoyingly determined”, “selfish”, “upstart”, “being only after personal profit” and even “generally uncivilized” to describe Chinese civilians. Surely this wasn’t what the governments in Beijing or in Taipei had expected after two years of warming cross-strait ties and social and cultural exchanges.

The survey’s most striking finding, however, was how the Taiwanese regard the prospect of eventual unification. In 2000, 12% wanted a quick declaration of Taiwanese independence, last month it was 16%. Ten years ago, 32% of respondents spoke out in favor of maintaining the current status quo “eternally”, now it’s 51%. The percentage of Taiwanese that wanted to keep the status quo and unify in the distant future dropped from 20% to 9%.

China’s public relations problem leaves the KMT government in a dilemma. The more Beijing senses that the KMT’s candidates could fare badly in mayoral elections to be held in Taiwan’s five biggest cities later this year, the more Beijing doubts that President Ma will win his own re-election bid in 2012. This makes Beijing likely to intensify its pressure on Ma since Chinese President Hu Jintao himself is under the gun.

Hu’s internal opponents, Beijing’s hawkish factions, are pushing him to make Ma pay back the economic favors Beijing granted to Taiwan under the ECFA through major political concessions during the remainder of both Ma’s and Hu’s presidencies – Hu and Wen are required to step down in 2013. However, if Taiwan’s government repays its debt too fast, the chances that the KMT will lose the elections will grow. If China allows Ma to repay little by little, he might not be able to pay it all off.

If China fails to win Taiwanese hearts and minds any time soon, it could well be too late. Wen’s remarks made in New York regarding China’s missiles will be taken by some Taiwanese as a genuine gesture of goodwill. Whether it will be enough, however, is questionable.

To Ding, Beijing, with its furious tirades aimed at Japan over the recent arrest of a Chinese fishing boat captain who crossed into waters around the disputed Diayutai Islands, has just produced yet another public relations gaffe that turns the Taiwanese off.

He says, “China’s recent reaction to Japan has frightened Taiwan over closer economic ties, and that is China’s consistent problem: China cannot be trusted at all by Taiwanese, and it will be difficult to build confidence, less trust.”

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