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Taiwan & China: The Honeymoon That Never Got as Far as Finland
By Zhang Baohui

ON JUNE 29, 2010, China and Taiwan signed a landmark trade agreement that represented a milestone in cross-strait relations. The Economic Co-operation Framework Agreement is an important part of President Ma Ying-jeou's strategy to build a cooperative relationship with Beijing. However, this cannot hide the profound political differences between the two sides that grew up in the second half of 2009, when Beijing and Taipei saw their relationship severely strained over the future political agenda for cross-strait relations.

 

For a few tense months in 2009, in a series of conferences and discussions on both sides of the strait, academics and officials sparred over how far negotiations would go. In the end, Beijing seemed to understand it could push Taiwan only so far toward a process of unification that is deeply resisted by Taiwanese across the political spectrum.

 

FROM HONEYMOON TO CONTENTION

Cross-strait relations in the first year of Ma's administration could have been characterized as a honeymoon period. Ma's new approaches toward Mainland China led to fundamental changes in relations. His government pursued an accommodation strategy with the aim of allaying Beijing's concerns over Taiwan's quest for independence.


Toward this end, he repeatedly assured Beijing that Taipei accepts the one-China principle and is willing to cultivate bilateral economic, cultural and people-to-people exchanges. His strategy also avoided any policies by Taiwan that might alienate the mainland.

 

After he assumed the presidency in May 2008, this new approach led to a rapid and profound reduction in tensions in the Taiwan Strait, and many aspects of bilateral cooperation reached new heights. In fact, it is safe to say in 2011 that the strait is no longer a flash point for military conflict that could potentially drag China and the United States into a war.

 

However, cross-strait relations began to experience significant strains in the second year of Ma's administration. Two factors contributed to this shift. The first was Beijing's new goals for the further development of cross-strait relations. More specifically, in the second half of 2009, Beijing initiated a vigorous campaign to engage Taiwan in political negotiations. The second factor was declining public satisfaction with the Ma government and a series of domestic political setbacks, which saw the president's popularity drop to a low of 23.8 percent in July 2010 before recovering. About 45.4 percent of those polled in February 2011 said they trusted him, against 40.1 percent who said they didn't trust him.


This analysis argues that although the issue of political negotiations caused some temporary setbacks, there are signs that today the relationship between Beijing and Taipei has rebounded after Beijing made pragmatic adjustments at the end of 2009. This dampening of Beijing's expectations will be conducive to maintaining bilateral cooperation in the coming years. Moreover, while Beijing has become more prudent in its political goals, Ma's mainland strategy has stayed on course. His setbacks in Taiwan have largely been caused by domestic factors, not his mainland policies. Indeed, surveys suggest the public has maintained consistent support for them.


Nevertheless, the strained relationship between China and Taiwan in 2009 exposed the profound political differences over the future direction of cross-strait relations. While Beijing prefers closer political ties, Taipei wants to protect its political autonomy. This political tug-of-war between Beijing and Taipei casts doubt on the view that Taiwan has undergone a process of "Finlandization," a term arising from Finland's decision not to challenge the far more powerful Soviet Union during the Cold War.


American observers and Ma's political opposition at home argue that Taiwan has been "drifting into Beijing's sphere of influence."1 They believe that Ma's various accommodating measures have effectively reduced Taiwan's political autonomy. The reality is that Ma successfully foiled Beijing's push for political negotiations that would have laid the foundation for unification. He has proved capable of drawing the line between improving cross-strait relations and maintaining political autonomy. The Finlandization perspective has underestimated Ma's resolve and political skill in defending Taiwan's core interests, while he simultaneously promotes dialogues with Beijing.


BEIJING'S 2009 GOALS

 

During the first year of the new cross-strait relationship, Beijing seemed rather content with de facto divided rule across the Taiwan Strait. Indeed, Chinese decision-makers appeared to be happy to see a fundamental reduction of tension and an expansion of dialogue and cooperation. The Chinese leadership broadly endorsed Ma's strategy of focusing first on bilateral economic issues while delaying far more contentious political discussions.

 

However, in mid-2009, Beijing began to shift toward a more aggressive strategy that embodied new political goals. Some mainland experts on Taiwan began to suggest the need for a peace accord to govern future cross-strait relations. According to media reports, this new momentum was first reflected in a series of

semi-official conferences in the summer of 2009.2


At these gatherings, mainland experts elaborated on the necessity and urgency of a peace accord. In general, they argued that after a year of breakthrough developments, conditions were ripe for negotiations over political issues — which mainly referred to the signing of a peace accord to govern the future relationship. According to these experts, while the current stage of cross-strait relations pursued "peaceful development," the next stage would inevitably focus on "peaceful unification."


For example, Guo Zhenyuan, a research fellow at the China Institute of International Relations, suggested at a conference in Hangzhou that peaceful cross-strait relations were merely a transitional stage toward peaceful reunification. A peace accord could solidify and safeguard these peaceful relations.3 Without it, he argued, unresolved political issues could seriously constrain the further development of the relationship.


In November of that year, a major conference took place in Taipei involving high-level mainland officials and scholars such as Zheng Bijian, the former vice president of the CCP Central Party School, and Yu Keli, director of the Institute of Taiwan Studies of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS). At the conference, mainland scholar Xie Yu, director of research at the Institute of Taiwan Studies, argued that a peace accord would embody the "one China" principle and, on that basis, lay the groundwork for resolving major issues between the two sides. Further, a peace accord would create conditions for eventual peaceful unification.4

 

Beijing's push for political negotiations and a peace accord represented an escalation of its cross-strait goals. It is important to understand Beijing's motives. One was the concern that without the resolution of important political issues, which included Taiwan's acceptance of the one-China principle, cross-strait relations could not move forward. Indeed, some Chinese experts used the term "bottleneck" to characterize the situation. While acknowledging the amazing progress made since 2008, they believed that moving relations to the next level would be difficult without the proper political framework to govern that relationship. A peace accord that confirmed the one-China principle offered such a political framework.


Another motive was Beijing's concern about a possible future reversal of cross-strait relations. A peace accord, it was felt, could minimize those uncertainties. As noted by Li Jiaquan, a senior research fellow at the Institute of Taiwan Studies of CASS, a peace accord could "regulate the future and prevent unexpected negativities."5

 

Essentially, this indicated Beijing's lingering fear that the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) could return to power in future elections. Some mainland scholars believe that a legally binding peace accord would be a way to constrain the mainland policies of a future DPP government. Therefore, Beijing's push for political negotiations could be seen as a defensive act to hedge against future uncertainties.


The third explanation for Beijing's new agenda is that it was an unavoidable consequence of Ma's mainland strategy, which sought to use accommodation to ease tensions with the mainland and thus improve Taiwan's external security. However, accommodative measures such as Ma's support for the one-China principle, his eagerness to expand dialogue and economic cooperation and his refusal to engage in activities that might displease Beijing, inherently contained elements of appeasement. According to international relations theory, the appeasement approach heightens the goals of the adversary, since it may think that the appeasing side is weak and willing to make further concessions.6 In this case, Ma's accommodation strategy may have contributed to Beijing's new perception of the shifting balance of power between the two sides. Beijing may have interpreted his eagerness to please the mainland as a sign of weakness. Therefore, Beijing may have believed that it could pressure Ma to participate in political negotiations.


TAIWAN'S RESPONSE TO BEIJING'S PUSH

Obviously, Beijing's political agenda made Taiwan uneasy. At the conference in Taipei in November 2009, Chen Ming-tong, a former chairman of the Mainland Affairs Council under the administration of former President Chen Shui-bian, claimed that a peace accord was no doubt the first step toward unification. He warned that Beijing's push could seriously backfire in Taiwan, where there is a broad consensus on maintaining the status quo and little support for unification.7

 

Chao Chun-shan, president of the Foundation on Asia-Pacific Studies, a think tank affiliated with the KMT government, told a forum on Oct. 16, 2009, that three conditions must be met before Taiwan would engage in political negotiations with Beijing: the completion of an economic cooperation framework agreement (ECFA), the presence of a domestic consensus, and acceptance by the international community, which refers primarily to the United States and Japan.8


Chao's statement led to criticism from various circles in Beijing. Some Chinese experts argued that it showed Ma's unwillingness to proceed with unification. Some charged that Ma had been pursuing a policy of "peaceful separation" designed to prolong divided rule across the Taiwan Strait. Criticism of Ma began to mount via unofficial channels, such as academic conferences and editorials in the pro-Beijing news media outside China.


However, Ma's government has consistently maintained that its mainland strategy is "economics first, then politics." Cai Shin-yuan, chairwoman of the Mainland Affairs Council, the leading governmental agency in charge of cross-strait relations, made an important policy statement on Oct. 5, 2009, in which she reaffirmed Taiwan's unwillingness to go along with Beijing's push for political negotiations. According to her, Ma's government had studied political negotiations but had no timetable.9


On Oct. 10, 2009, Ma elaborated on why his government was not ready for political negotiations. He said the division between the two sides had deep historical origins, and that it was unrealistic to attempt to overcome that division in one step. Thus, the two sides must "face the reality, make gradual progress, and expand mutual trust to eventually eliminate their differences."10

 

Therefore, the opposition DPP's apprehension that Ma would yield to pressure from Beijing turned out to be unfounded. His government has been able to maintain a determined and consistent position of refusing to engage in political negotiations. Ma's government is clearly aware of the domestic repercussions of these negotiations. He recognizes that the great majority of Taiwanese oppose any political negotiations that could lead to the weakening of Taiwan's political autonomy. Indeed, the Mainland Affairs Council conducted a survey of public opinion in September 2009, which indicated that 87 percent of the people supported maintaining the status quo.11 This political reality inevitably constrains the Ma administration's mainland policies. This is why Ma has repeatedly insisted that any progress in the area of political negotiations must come after the achievement of a domestic consensus.

 

MA'S DOMESTIC POLICY CONSTRAINTS

 

In addition to the tensions caused by Beijing's new agenda for cross-strait relations, Ma's government also faced rising domestic challenges in the second half of 2009 that constrained his mainland policies. One major shock was Typhoon Morakot, which left more than 700 people dead or missing in early August. Due to perceived incompetence in organizing the rescue effort, Ma's popularity nosedived to below 30 percent. He was forced to fire Premier Liu Chao-shiuan on Sept. 7, 2009, in an attempt to reverse his declining popularity.


Ma's woes strained relations with Beijing. Taking advantage of the president's political weakness, some members of the opposition DPP invited the Dalai Lama to visit Taiwan and conduct religious rituals for those who had died in the typhoon. In the past, Ma's government had consistently rejected the Tibetan spiritual leader's requests to visit, but his weakened domestic position forced Ma to grant permission for this visit. Beijing temporarily suspended bilateral exchanges. Although Beijing initially stopped short of criticizing Ma directly, the tone began to change after the Dalai Lama's visit. Some Chinese experts on Taiwan openly questioned Ma's ability to handle pressure from the DPP and insulate cross-strait relations from Taiwan's domestic politics.

 

The declining popularity of the Ma government was also seen in the December 2009 local elections, in which the ruling KMT won 12 of the 17 cities and counties but lost Yilan County to the Democratic Party. This single loss was not overly threatening to Ma's government, but the DPP's rising share of the vote highlighted a worrisome trend. Of 4.09 million votes, the DPP received 1.98 million, or 45.36 percent, compared with 2.09 million, or 47.87 percent, for the KMT. Tsai Ing-wen, the DPP chairwoman, claimed the vote share represented the second highest in the party's history.12 Some analysts have concluded that the DPP has bounced back from its disarray after the 2008 presidential election, in which the DPP candidate received only 41.33 percent of the votes.


IMPACT OF THE 2009 CONTROVERSY

In the context of the controversy over political negotiations and Taiwan's changing domestic politics in the second half of 2009, it is important to analyze the future direction of this relationship. The controversy over a peace accord increased political mistrust between the two sides. This is indicated by rising suspicion on the mainland that Ma is interested in maintaining the status quo, which means de facto Taiwan independence. Ma's increasing domestic vulnerability has also constrained his mainland policy. The Dalai Lama's visit is just one example of how a weakened Ma could strain cross-strait relations.


This essay, however, maintains that the strains of 2009 have not had a systemic, long-term impact on cross-strait relations. Although the controversy over political negotiations did some damage to cross-strait relations, it also created the conditions for a more stable relationship in the future. The political contest between Beijing and Taipei was helpful in scaling back the expectations of the former, and it helped clarify the political balance of power between the two sides. Beijing's push for negotiations over a peace accord could have been indicative of its underestimation of Taipei's political will, but Ma's resolve and perseverance in resisting the push demonstrated to Beijing that it could not unilaterally determine the agenda for cross-strait relations.

 

This clarification of the political balance of power will allow cross-strait relations to continue on a more pragmatic course. Indeed, Beijing retracted its push for political negotiations. On Nov. 11, 2009, Yang Yi, the spokesperson of the Taiwan Affairs Office of the State Council, stated at a news briefing that any suggestions of a mainland timetable for a peace agreement were "purely speculations."13 Then in late November, Zhang Nianchi, director of the Shanghai Institute of East Asian Studies, published a high-profile article in monthly current affairs magazine Zhongguo pinglun in which he cautioned against a premature push for political negotiations. He specifically suggested that a period of "peaceful development" in cross-strait relations represents a long and unavoidable transitional stage toward peaceful unification. He advised that cross-strait relations must respect the reality and focus on non-controversial issues.14 He argued that political divisions could be resolved only after the two sides have established sufficient mutual trust. Taiwanese analyses suggest that Zhang's article indicated a shift in Beijing's position back to a more pragmatic direction.15


This moderation in Beijing's stance was best demonstrated by an event on Dec. 31, 2009, commemorating the first anniversary of Hu Jintao's important speech on Taiwan. Jia Qinglin, chairman of the People's Political Consultative Conference, mentioned the need for preliminary work before any negotiations over political and security issues, and he emphasized the importance of focusing on economic issues first and adopting a gradualist approach toward cross-strait relations. Wang Yi, director of the Taiwan Affairs Office, also argued that the most effective way to resolve complicated issues is to "build mutual confidence, set aside differences, and create a win-win situation."16


Therefore, although the controversy over political negotiations in the summer and fall of 2009 put strains on cross-strait relations, the dispute also turned the relationship in a more pragmatic direction. Specifically, it helped to redefine Beijing's expectations, and as a result, the mainland has backed away from its push for a peace accord. This pragmatic turn by Beijing suggests that it is unlikely to rekindle the issue anytime soon. Second, the domestic weakening of the Ma government has not generated systematic constraints on his mainland policies. Most Taiwanese analyses have argued that Ma's declining popular support was largely caused by domestic factors such as perceived incompetence, not by his mainland policies.17 Indeed, public opinion surveys indicate that the majority of the public still supports his engagement with the mainland. For example, after Chen Yunlin, chairman of the Association for Relations Across the Taiwan Strait (ARATS), paid his second visit to Taiwan in late December 2009, a survey found that 68 percent of the public believed institutionalized negotiations with the mainland were conducive to maintaining peaceful relations. Further, 65 percent approved of continued cross-strait dialogues and exchanges.18


Due to the public's continuing support for Ma's mainland policy, his government has pledged to stay the course. After the KMT's setback in the local elections of December 2009, Premier Wu Den-yih forcefully told the media that the government would not re-examine its mainland policies.19


It was in this context that Chen Yunlin began his second visit to Taiwan that December. He met with his counterpart, Chiang Pin-kung, chairman of the Straits Exchange Foundation (SEF), to discuss a number of economic cooperation issues. During this fourth SEF-ARATS negotiation, the two sides signed three cooperation agreements covering agricultural and fisheries issues.


More important, the two sides decided that the fifth SEF-ARATS talks in the first half of 2010 would focus on the Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement (ECFA), which was signed on June 26, 2010.20 It is considered the most significant agreement between the two since the end of the civil war in 1949. This indicates that Ma's domestic problems have not slowed his policy of economic integration with the mainland.

 

After the successful visit by Chen Yunlin, cross-strait relations seem to have returned to normal. The strains of 2009 have largely disappeared. For example, during an interview with the German news organization Deutsche Welle on Jan. 9, 2010, Ma revealed that he had paid 15 visits to Germany after its unification to study potential lessons for cross-strait relations.21 Although Ma emphasized that key differences make many of the German lessons inapplicable to the Taiwan Strait context, this startling revelation certainly delivers a friendly message to Beijing.


PRAGMATISM IN COMMAND

To conclude, although Beijing's new agenda led to significant strains in cross-strait relations in the second half of 2009, pragmatism has returned. Further, Ma's domestic setbacks have not generated constraints on his mainland policy. These factors indicate that a smoother cross-strait relationship, based on adjusted mutual expectations, will probably dominate the rest of Ma's first term. In fact, because of Ma's political vulnerability at home, Beijing will likely refrain from putting additional pressure on the relationship. The No. 1 priority for Beijing is Ma's successful re-election in 2012. This means that the mainland will be careful not to give political ammunition to the DPP. Ma has demonstrated the ability to strike a balance between improving cross-strait relations and maintaining Taiwan's political autonomy. He has also proved himself capable of fending off pressure from Beijing. These abilities have been underestimated by both Ma's political opposition at home and some apprehensive American observers, who once worried about Taiwan's Finlandization. The fact is that due to Ma's perseverance, Beijing has backed away from the goal of political negotiations and is unlikely to raise the issue again before Taiwan's 2012 presidential election.


Baohui Zhang is Director of the Centre for Asian Pacific Studies at Lingnan University, Hong Kong.




Notes

1 See Bruce Gilley, “Not So Dire Straits: How the Finlandization of Taiwan Benefits US Security,” Foreign Affairs, Vol. 89, No. 1 (January/February 2010), pp. 44-60.

2 For further information, see “Liang an tan zhengzhi tiaojian jian chengshu” (Conditions Are Ripe for Cross-Strait Political Negotiations), Taikong pao, Aug. 12, 2009. Taikong pao is a pro-Beijing newspaper published in Hong Kong.

3 For Guo’s views, see “Zhuanjia di liang an heping fazhan tongyi guodu shuo” (Experts Suggest a Transition from Peaceful Development Toward Peaceful Unification), Taikong pao, Aug. 13, 2009.

4 See “Da lu zhinang di heping xieyi gouxiang tong shu yi zhong fazhi hua” (Mainland Policy Advisor Proposes That Peace Accord Be Based on One China Principle), Nov. 12, 2009, at http://taiwan.huanqiu.com/lingan/2009-11/630612_2.html_

5 Li Jiaquan, “Qianding liang an heping xieyi di kexing xing yanjiu” (A Feasibility Study of a Peace Accord for Cross-Strait Relations), Taiwan yanjiu, No. 4, 2008, p. 2.

6 Stephen R. Rock, Appeasement in International Politics (Lexington, KY: University Press of Kentucky, 2000).

7 For Chen’s view, see “Qian lu wei cheng ji tong zaocheng ji du” (Former DPP Legislator: A Rush for Unification Will Lead to Accelerated Independence), Huanqiu ribao, Nov. 14, 2009.

8 For a report on Chao Chun-shan’s three conditions, see Shih Hsiu-chuan, “Ma Slow on Unification,” Taipei Times, Oct. 24, 2009.

9 See “Cai Shin-yuan: liang an zhengzhi duihua mei shijian biao” (Cai Shin-yuan: There Is No Timetable for Cross-Strait Political Negotiations), China Times, Oct. 6, 2009.

10 See “Ma Zongtong: weihu guojia zhuquan chuli liang an yiti” (President Ma: Resolving Cross-Strait Issues Needs to Be Based on Protection of Sovereignty), China Times, Oct. 10, 2009.

11 This survey, conducted between Sept. 24 and 26, 2009, is available at www.mac.gov.tw_

12 See Mo Yan-chih, “2009 Elections Analysis: KMT’s Lackluster Performance Seen as Warning to Ma,” Taipei Times, Dec. 6, 2009.

13 See “Guo tai ban: da lu lie liang an heping xieyi shijian biao shu chuaiche” (Taiwan Affairs Office: It’s Pure Speculation the Mainland Has Set a Timetable for a Cross-Strait Peace Agreement), Nov. 11, 2009, at taiwan.huanqiu.com/liangan/2009-11/629269.html_

14 For a summary of Zhang’s key points, see “Zhang Nianchi: liang an xian jing hou zheng bu yi jizao” (Zhang Nianchi: Developing Cross-Strait Relations Should Adopt the Economic First, Politics Later Strategy), China Times, Nov. 25, 2009.

15 For these Taiwanese analyses, see “Weichi xianzhuang shi liang an ting li ting sun dian” (Keeping the Status Quo Is the Best Compromise for Cross-Strait Relations), United Daily News, Nov. 26, 2009.

16 See “Jia Qinglin: guanche hu liu dian liang an jiaoliu you si yao” (Jia Qingling: To Implement Hu’s Six Points, Cross-Strait Exchanges Need to Emphasize Four Issues), China Times, Dec. 31, 2009.

17 For this interpretation of Ma’s setbacks, see “Ma Ying-geou luxian di kunjing” (Ma Ying-jeou’s Dilemma), China Times, Dec. 9, 2009.

18 This survey, conducted Dec.25-27, 2009, is available at

www.mac.gov.tw/ct.asp?xltem=72604&ctNode=6656&mp=100_

19 See “Wu quei: liang an zhengce bu bian” (Premier Wu: Cross-Strait Policies Will Not Change), United Daily News, Dec.7, 2009.

20 See “Taiwan and China sign landmark trade agreement,” BBC News, Jun. 26, 2010 at http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/10442557

21 For a summary of Ma’s interview, see “De mei zhuan fang, Ma zongtong: geng touming tuidong liang an guanxi” (In German Media Interview, President Ma Intends to Promote Cross-Strait Relations With Greater Transparency), Central News Agency, Dec.17, 2009.

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    The strains that arose in Beijing’s relationship with Taipei in 2009 have been largely overcome, and Taiwan has avoided being sucked into China’s orbit as Finland was into Russia’s prior to World War II, argues Baohui Zhang, Director of the Centre for Asian Pacific Studies at Lingnan University, Hong Kong.
    Published: March 2011 (Vol.6 No.1)
    About the author

    Zhang Baohui is Director of the Center for Asian Pacific Studies at Lingnan University, Hong Kong.

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