Hunter Gross is an intern for Asia Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.
The four-day visit between Zhang Zhijun, director of China’s Taiwan Affairs Office (TAO) and Wang Yu-chi, chairman of Taiwan’s Mainland Affairs Council (MAC), has been described as “historic,” “a turning point in relations,” and “unimaginable.” But the meeting is not unprecedented. In recent years, several encounters between Chinese and Taiwanese representatives have led to this moment. This meeting, however, serves as a symbolic affirmation of the relatively stable status quo that benefits both Beijing and Taipei. To be sure, from a diplomatic standpoint, this is the first official meeting between China and Taiwan since the end of the civil war in 1949. Despite the media hype, however, this is unlikely to bring about any substantial changes in cross-strait relations, and a dramatic change was not necessarily the goal.
When thinking about Taiwan, the focus tends to be on its tense relations with Beijing, the possibility of unification, or Taiwan independence. This overlooks the de facto independence and peace Taiwan has enjoyed for the past sixty years. Cross-strait relations overall have been positive and lucrative. China and Taiwan negotiated the Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement (ECFA) in 2010, and there was an informal meeting between Chinese president Xi Jinping and the Taiwanese delegation at the October 2013 Asia-Pacific Economic Co-operation (APEC) forum in Bali. Under the ECFA, trade between Beijing and Taipei has doubled since 2008 and reached $197.2 billion in 2013. China is Taiwan’s number one trading partner, and Taiwan enjoys a $116 billion trade surplus with the mainland, making it one of the few entities that maintains a trade surplus with China.
Formalizing diplomatic communication allows both sides to continue to benefit while avoided the extremes of unification or independence. From the Chinese government’s viewpoint, Xi Jinping already expressed the need to close the political divide. Beijing is eager to increase political ties in addition to economic cooperation while Taiwanese president Ma Ying-jeou is still in power. Ma, who leads the Kuomintang (KMT) Party and favors closer ties with Beijing, has become increasingly unpopular in Taiwan, and it is predicted that the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) will defeat the KMT in the 2016 national election. Time is running out for Beijing, which has good reason to be concerned that the post-Ma government will be less cooperative. Formalizing relations now serves to lock in the progress made in cross-strait relations and to set a framework through which to maintain relations with Taiwan regardless of a transition in its leadership. Furthermore, the current status quo allows Beijing to avoid conflict with Taipei while continuing to oppose Taiwan’s independence, thereby maintaining Communist Party legitimacy. In addition, China is able to maintain a lucrative trading partner and stands to benefit by achieving a diplomatic success in the region despite the recent flare up of tensions over territorial disputes.
For its part, Taiwan enjoys de facto independence, a free media, and a democratic political system. Institutionalizing the status quo allows Taipei to maintain its balancing game of benefitting from good relations with Beijing while buying time and avoiding agreeing to policies that conflict with its interests. Unlike mainland leaders, the Taiwanese leadership is elected and is directly accountable to its citizens. Polls show that 66 percent of Taiwanese citizens prefer the status quo, 24 percent want independence, and only 7 percent support unification. Moreover, entering a slow, yet official, diplomatic process is beneficial to Taiwan because the increase in dialogue serves as a form of legitimization of Taiwan’s administrative legitimacy on the international stage. By addressing one another as “chairman” and “director,” both officials already demonstrated respect for the other’s jurisdiction, while simultaneously avoiding the question of sovereignty.
Nonetheless, there are challenges inherent in simply codifying and preserving the status quo. Despite Taiwan’s de facto independence, China prevents many nations from signing trade deals with the island. While bilateral trade is booming, there is concern in Taipei that the island is growing economically dependent on the mainland. This concern was one of the major issues raised by the opposition to the ECFA, who feared that closer economic integration was a cover for unification. As the two economies become more integrated, there is also a concern about the rising influence of Beijing in Taiwan’s media and politics. Finally, while this meeting may very well set a precedent for future dialogue and negotiation, it is also possible that closer relations will reduce Taiwan’s ability to resist cooperation with Beijing on matters that conflict with Taipei’s interests.
Although the recent diplomatic overture is unlikely to bring about significant changes, by institutionalizing cross-strait relations, this meeting sets a precedent for official channels of dialogue in the future. As a direct result of the talks, both sides announced they will establish representative offices in their respective territories which could allow for future humanitarian visits to detained nationals. Moreover, it is possible that future dialogue will allow for cross-strait layovers in Taiwan for Chinese citizens, provide healthcare to Taiwanese students in China, create follow-up agreements under the ECFA, and establish future bilateral cooperation on regional economic integration. Despite official diplomatic efforts, leaders on both sides have to contend with their people. The recent controversy over the Taiwanese actress who provoked an online debate after saying she was “abroad” while on the mainland shows that individual voices on both sides of the strait often can speak louder than state diplomacy. Finally, despite Zhang Zhijun’s rejection of Wang Yu-chi’s request for Xi Jinping to meet Ma Ying-jeou at the APEC summit in Beijing, Zhang did accept an invitation to visit Taiwan this summer, which reveals a desire to pursue future dialogue albeit at a slow pace and on Beijing’s terms.