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Benoît Vermander SJ

China and Taiwan

Appeasement Policy and its Dangers


From: Stimmen der Zeit, 6/2009, P. 405-414
webmaster's own, not authorized translation


    The relationship between the People's Republic of China and Taiwan is characterized by tense relations. BENOÎT VERMANDER, director of the Ricci Institute in Taipei, gives a look at the recent developments between the two countries.


Since 1949 there have been "two Chinas" side by side for 60 years now: the People's Republic of China with the capital Beijing and the Republic of China including Taiwan and some neighbouring islands. This does not mean that China, as one sometimes says, is "divided" since six decades. For in the Treaty of Shimonoseki of 1895 China had ceded Taiwan to Japan and it had only a few years ago become an independent province of the Chinese Empire.

Since 1949 the particular situation of China and Taiwan has profoundly changed {1}. China rose, as it were, from a pariah state to a super power, whereas Taiwan succeeded in bringing about an exemplary economic recovery and an equally exemplary democracy. In terms of culture the island has adopted a rich and eventful heritage that goes beyond the exclusive "Chinese" model offered to the island by the Chinese Nationalist Party (Kuomintang, KMT) after its flight from the mainland in 1949. On that occasion Taiwan has made use of the contributions of the Melanesian-Polynesian aborigines and of the settlers coming for 400 years from Fujian, of the achievements of the Japanese colonial period, and of the for 60 years effective ethno-cultural mix with its strong American influences. At the same time Taiwan had in the last ten years to swallow a weakening of its international status caused by the rise of his powerful neighbour on which its future economic growth depends.

These cultural and political changes in Taiwan had come to a conclusion by the election of Chen Shui-bian as president in March 2000. The Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) to which he belongs formed then an alliance with the opposition by an identical program and strove resolutely for the internationally recognized, formal independence of the island, but without risking a direct confrontation with the powerful Chinese neighbour. After his narrow re-election of 2004 Chen Shui-bian performed a turbulent second mandate: His personal financial scandals and those of his family piled up, the gap between the incomes developed to the disadvantage of the middle class, and the increasing international isolation of Taiwan due to the extremely aggressive foreign policy of the President discouraged even the supporters of independence. In this difficult context Frank Hsieh, the candidate of the Democratic Progressive Party was in March 2008 defeated by Ma Yingjiu, the candidate of a renewed Chinese Nationalist Party, who got more than 58 percent of the votes.



Ma Yingjiu was well aware of the fact that he to a good part owed his election to a bad economy, "What matters is economy!" as he said a few months earlier with the famous phrase of Bill Clinton. Indeed, the islanders gave a clear mandate to the son of a Kuomintang general. But 61 per cent of them also said that they regard themselves exclusively as "Taiwanese", and hardly more than one per cent called themselves "Chinese", while the others claimed a double - Taiwanese and Chinese - membership. The economic revival, a moderate rapproachement to China and a greater international room for manoeuvre - that was the political basic model with the help of which Ma Yingjiu secured his election.


A New Start

On 6 November 2008 President Ma Yingjiu met in this context Chen Yunlin, who is the person responsible for the Taiwan Affairs of the People's Republic of China and is the most senior Chinese official that has gone to Taipei since 60 years {2}. This visit of the Beijing official was concluded with the agreements on air transport and shipping and postal services between the two coasts, which is equal to quasi-normalization.

Since the election of Ma Yingjiu as President of Taiwan in March 2008 and his inauguration in May the relations between China and Taiwan developed with an unprecedented rapidity. During the presidency of Chen Shui-bian (2000 to 2008) the relationship between the mainland giant and the small island were characterized by dangerous tensions, whereas now the discussions go in a cooperative atmosphere. Both sides thus take the negotiations up which took place in 1993 in Singapore {3}. These were at that time hardly continued, due to the cooling of relations which began after the first direct election of the president in Taiwan in 1996 {4}. The summit of November 2008 is therefore a new beginning after 15 years.

However, the situation remains ambiguous and turbulent, and one would not do justice to it if one saw only the contrast between an ice age and a sudden re-warming of the Sino-Taiwanese relations. Three points are to be examined, so that one understands what is at stake in this interaction the results of which decide on the future of the entire region: What is the exact content of the agreements already concluded, and what results can be expected of them? What are the issues and problems which are now under discussion? What dangers could impair the process that has got going?



The Contents of the Agreements

In the last three years of the presidency of Chen Shui-bian the authorities on the mainland have supported the formation of alternative forums that had a substitute function for a dialogue between the governments. The important role of these meetings on a non-governmental level on the one had illustrated the refusal of the Chinese to grant the Chen government full legitimacy, and on the other hand the rigid attitude of this very Chen government, which was above all intent on strengthening the Taiwanese sovereignty in front of everybody, even at the price of a dangerous confrontation with the big neighbour on the mainland. These informal discussions were held with the Chinese Nationalist Party which was then in the opposition. On such occasions its leaders were received in Beijing like heads of state - apart from Ma Yingjiu who was from 2005 on regarded as a presumed presidential candidate of the Chinese Nationalist Party and did not go to Beijing. There were also discussions with professional associations, especially those of the airlines. It was possible in this way to build up gradually a system of charter flights allowing the Taiwanese businessmen at the Chinese New Year and other festivals to return to the country by direct flights. The island government at first hesitantly approved these arrangements but then it supported them, since it was thus able to ease the travel restrictions for its businessmen without endangering its own sovereignty.

On the basis of these legal and practical solutions it was possible from July 2008 on to arrange direct flights, which at first took place every first weekend and then, after the first round of the China-Taiwan talks in Beijing in June 2008, also daily {5}. So the air traffic system, which cannot be subsumed into the usual regulations, has extended and so it became finally the standard {6}. The first talks between the new Taiwanese government and the mainland authorities also led to a partial liberalization of the Chinese tourist traffic to Taiwan - an agreement on which the Taiwanese pin great hope, in the expectation that the blessing of tourism would improve the economic situation that appears uncertain since the June / July 2008. But in this respect the disappointment is great until now. The number of Chinese tourists who profit from the organized trips is lower than expected. The liberalization of air transport is not yet accompanied by a strong increase of mainland tourists whose journeys are checked and re-checked - by their own authorities and those of Taiwan. In 2008 95 per cent of the more than five million direct or indirect flights between the island and the mainland were booked by Taiwanese.

The first agreements of July were followed by a period of intense negotiations which were concluded with the discussions and arrangements of Taipei in November 2008. Four documents were signed:



about the establishment of freighter connections, about the increase of direct flight connections, about establishing normal postal links, and about food safety.

Taiwan has so managed without immediate political implications to open a dialogue with China on practical issues and to conclude agreements that have a beneficial influence on its economy. China was willing to rely on this logic in order to establish a stock of good will; it expects here that every agreement strengthening the interdependence of economies and societies leads to a peaceful reunification. The pragmatism of his approach proves the relatively moderate nature of Hu Jintao's team in the Taiwan issue {7}.


Issues that are Still Pending

In November 2008 the two sides agreed on half-yearly meetings. The next meeting will be in June 2009 in China (Nanking probably), after that the negotiators will meet again in October in Taipei. First it is about laying down the issues about which one wants to talk.

For the Taiwanese side it is meanwhile an accepted fact that the discussions in June and November 2009 are to deal with the following points. Regarding the liberalization of financial transaction Taiwan hopes that its banks get the permission to work in China and declares itself ready to grant Chinese investors access to its territory. Another subject for negotiation is the legal protection for Taiwanese investors in China, where they often become victims of crooks and blackmailers. Taiwan also complains that many Mafiosi of the island find refuge on Chinese territory. From there they blackmail and otherwise intimidate people by telephone. The fight against crime is therefore a third point on which the island hopes for a formal agreement. On the possible agenda 2009 there are finally several issues which are connected with what Taiwan likes to call the "diplomatic truce" and which are here specially to be explained.

The "diplomatic truce" includes at first an informal aspect, i.e. to achieve a freezing of certain diplomatic alliances and a refraining from of the "check book diplomacy" by which Beijing has further reduced the small number of countries that still recognize Taiwan, i.e. the "Republic of China". Taipei hopes that it is able to keep its 23 allies and sees a positive signal in the fact that the new governments in Nicaragua and Paraguay have not yet given up their loyalty {8}; this should be a sign that Beijing intends to refrain from its costly diplomatic style with the two protagonists. One wants the assurance that this is also in future handled in this way.



A second aspect of the "diplomatic truce" is that Taiwan this year hosts two Paralympic events: the World Games of non-Olympic sports in Kaohsiung and the DeafOlympics in Taipei. Both events cause problems regarding the use resp. the prohibition of National Flags (already with the flag of the Republic of China in Taiwan) and other sensitive issues of protocol. (Just before the Olympic Games in Beijing, Taiwan and China had doggedly negotiated about the official name for the island.) All of these difficulties can be overcome without fundamental concessions if Beijing proves to be flexible.

The last but by far most important issue connected with the "diplomatic truce" concerns China's attitude in the ballot of the World Health Assembly in May 2009 {9}. Here Taiwan still claims an observer status, without applying for its admission into the World Health Organization. Beijing has proved to be more flexible with this issue than in the past and nurtures Taiwanese hopes but is still spreading the veil of secrecy over its intentions. If Beijing allowed Taiwan to take part in the World Health Assembly then Taiwan would undoubtedly regard it as a significant enlargement of its international scope, which would considerably strengthen the strategic course of the Ma government. But if Beijing, as in previous years, continued to use its veto, this would conversely call the conciliatory attitude of Ma's team into question, and the laboriously erected building could be shaken by it. For the Chinese Nationalist Party as well as previously for the Democratic Progressive Party, which is currently led by Mrs. Tsai Ying-wen, the expansion of international room for manúuvre is a major concern; there the difference in the style of politics should not mislead about the continuity of the objectives.

When in the future agreements have been reached about all these points, what is not yet certain, thornier questions will begin to emerge: Can a peace agreement be signed, and if so, on what basis of international law {10}? Would it include a withdrawal of the 1300 Chinese missiles directed at Taiwan and in return from the Taiwanese a formal commitment to the reunification, albeit without fixed deadlines? Could Taiwan and China cooperate in certain areas as e.g. environmental issues, which are for Ma an important problem but have no priority {11}? Would the ceasefire develop into formal agreements on the international status of Taiwan? All these issues are extremely carefully treated. The transition from the "low politics" (social and economic policy) to the "high politics" (foreign and security policy) is obviously full of pitfalls.

For that reason the risks have to be examined which put strain on a process that the Ma government likes to describe as a very rational one.



Four sources of risk can be identified which can call the successfully launched negotiations into question: the public opinion in Taiwan, the role of the Chinese Nationalist Party, the developments in Beijing and, finally, the "political deficit" of the negotiations in the context of the global economic crisis.


The Public Opinion in Taiwan

The scale of Ma Yingjiu's election victory should not lead to illusions. Public opinion admittedly continues approving of a liberalization of the exchange between island and mainland but is still little ready to make fundamental concessions regarding the sovereignty of the island. The aforementioned visit of Chen Yunlin shows the virulent contradictions: This meeting between Ma and Chen lasted no longer than seven minutes. Chen Yunlin confined himself to a few monosyllabic remarks in order to avoid addressing Ma Yingjiu as "president", because in Beijing's opinion Taiwan is officially still a rebellious local government. Above all the schedule of the encounter had suddenly been postponed, and the conversation between the two was held almost secretly. Not far away the demonstrations against Chen Yunlin's visit increased in violence, and the 7000 police officers who had been called in had a lot of trouble to control them.

When on Monday morning, the 3rd November Chen Yunlin began his visit the active opponents seemed still to be a small minority. It is not easy to defend the position of the followers of an isolationism on principle, and the confrontational policy of the former President Chen Shui-bian has clearly weakened Taiwan's international position. The situation nevertheless turned out to be tenser than expected. The police clumsily kept the young, resolute demonstrators in check or even maltreated them. They snatched the Tibetan flags or even the flag of the Republic of China, i.e. of Taiwan from them in order not to hurt the feelings of the guest from Beijing and made arbitrary arrests. Before Chen Yunlin the chairman of the Chinese Nationalist Party, Wu Po-Hsiung mentioned also Ma Yingjiu, using the title "mister" and not "president" as he did so, and he seemed thus to deny the legitimacy of the Republic of China.

The Ma government runs the risk of having to pay the price for these hesitant beginnings. Many citizens possibly feel the approach to China as tantamount to the erosion of civil liberties. This feeling is also fostered by the simultaneous suppression of the demonstrations and the particular strictness of the public prosecutors and examining magistrates with personalities of the opposition who are accused of corruption, especially the former President Chen Shui-bian. The increase in preventive detention and the political control of the judiciary gradually raise serious questions, even if the authorities vigorously fight against the allegation of influencing the administration of justice.



The Role of the Chinese Nationalist Party

So a meanwhile still vague worry develops: Does the Chinese Nationalist Party return to its authoritarian habits, doesn't it? Are the democratic achievements of Taiwan endangered by the rapid rapprochement with China, aren't they? And has one not, under the excuse that during a strategically important visit the security had to be guaranteed, already limited the civil liberties, has one? Large parts of the population are seized by those fears, especially young people who, asserting the entitlement to their Taiwanese identity and to freedom of opinion and the right to demonstrate, find the opportunity for a real political baptism of fire. One must not too early sound the alarm. The current government has not yet done anything that would endanger the balance of democracy. But neither its clumsy handling of public violence nor its too obvious homage to the Chinese ambassadors are a good sign.

The Chinese government, which will also in future be structured like a State Party, feels more comfortable with negotiations held in a similar structure and hopes that the Chinese Nationalist Party will supply the necessary counterpart - that's why representatives of the party have priority over government authorities. Many members of the Chinese Nationalist Party join the game {12}, and promote thus the competition between Ma Yingjiu and the apparatus that brought him to power. If the negotiations with Beijing would promote even only a partial return to a state party then they would be rejected even by those Taiwanese who are on principle for a rapprochement.


The Attitude of Beijing

Beijing has of course all the cards in his hand. Ma's success is entirely dependent on the goodwill of the Chinese government, especially on the international extension of the scope of action of the island, which would first be proved by its admission to the World Health Assembly. If Beijing proved to be inflexible on this point and in May Taiwan would not got the admission, then Ma can harden his attitude. But the Chinese Nationalist Party, which then would benefit from the weakening of the President's power, could also try to speed up the readiness to fundamental concessions. Then it would above all try to get the mainland ministry with which Ma was most anxious to appoint a personality outside the party.



With a two-thirds majority in the parliament the Chinese Nationalist Party could force the government, sooner than it does want this, to enter into political negotiations.

As for the rest, the emerging economic and social difficulties threaten to cause a crisis of legitimacy of the Communist Party of China, and the forcible return of a "tough group" is possible. Then the pressure on Taiwan could increase, because the rhetoric of reunification remains a factor of the leaders' legitimacy and a good means to distract people's attention from social tensions. Ma's position remains no less precarious, particularly since Beijing's position threatens to change. If Ma is re-elected in 2012, then he is president until 2016; whereas Hu Jintao has taken up his second and final term of office that will end in 1212.

The fact that China is capable to change the intended course of the negotiations was already suggested by Hu Jintao's television address broadcasted on 31 December 2008 on the occasion of the 30 Anniversary of Deng Xiaoping's letter "to the Taiwanese fellow-country-men", in which he for the first time spoke of the "peaceful nature" of reunification. The tone is admittedly conciliatory, but the direct appeal to the Democratic Progressive Party to give up the claim to independence as well as the suggestion that China could, due to Taiwan's political concessions, reduce its military threat and adapt it to the circumstances prove that Beijing wants to keep the initiative. These statements also illustrate the growing importance of the Taiwan issue in the priorities of the Chinese leaders for the year 2009.


The Global Economic Crisis and the Political Deficit

Until now the Chinese and the Taiwanese government have chosen a very bureaucratic way of approach and concentrated on economic issues before they got to talking about politics. This strategy could appear to be a matter of course but it does possibly not take into account the way in which public opinion reacts. Both governments have not found real symbolic gestures, as the announcement of an environmental co-operation could have been one. Taiwan and China have become big polluters but also technological and financial powers. In the global fight against global warming they could well co-operate, because the Taiwan Strait presents itself as an ideal area for pilot projects to reduce pollution and to develop alternative energies. How poor in symbols one proceeds is proved by the two panda bears given by Beijing to the zoo of Taipei.



This gift aroused the anger of the Taiwanese environmentalists who denounced that an endangered species of animal is used as instrument and is always offered foreign zoos when Beijing wants to underline the importance which it assigns to a diplomatic objective. The bureaucratic and hierarchical structure which is common to the Chinese Communist Party and the Chinese Nationalist Party of Taiwan has the result that they prefer actions "from above".

The detour via economy that has been taken for lack of a more substantial political and symbolic style could prove to be counter-productive. If the global crisis gets worse and the rapprochement of the two countries does in Taiwan not show any noticeable effect and even causes unpopular consequences such as the possible rise in the price of real estates, the disappointment may trigger hostile reactions. New rivalries can also emerge when the Taiwanese investors move away into countries where labour meanwhile costs less than in China. In periods of intense growth economy is a convergence factor, but in times of structural adjustment it can increase disagreement.

These considerations are not to play down the new opportunities which emerge. In the most optimistic scenario the logic of the appeasement policy could even fundamentally change the awareness of the Taiwan problem, both among the Chinese leaders and in the public opinion: Researchers on the mainland recently ask whether it was not possible to recognize that the "Republic China", which was established in 1911, continued to exist after 1949, and so Taiwan would get international legitimacy - a hypothesis that was unthinkable still a short time ago. The demonstrations against Chen Yunlin's visit had the paradoxical effect that they showed the Chinese public opinion that the entitlement to a Taiwanese identity certainly continues to exist also after the election defeat of Chen Shui-bian. Generally speaking, more relaxed and substantial relations between the two coasts of the Taiwan Strait could contribute to the lifting of Chinese taboos regarding the status and future of Taiwan {13}.

The prudent, gradual and conciliatory approach of the Government of Ma Yingjiu therefore bears fruit and breaks with the adventurous style of politics before his term of office. Nevertheless, it has also questionable limits, because it basically lacks a genuine political dimension, since it does neither draw up a national project for Taiwan nor a mobilizing vision. It creates no place for Taiwan on the international stage and gives the impression that the rapprochement to China took place by Taiwan's somewhat falling silent in the international context. It neglects the use of the strong Taiwanese assets in building a model of sustainable development in the Chinese and Asian world. After it had been blocked by an exaggerated rhetoric, the rapprochement between Taiwan and China cannot be achieved by the other extreme: the denial of the importance of the political and symbolic sphere. Its continuation can only be the fruit of agreement and of the wealth in inventiveness of societies looking for a dream and a project.




{1} About the history and dynamism of the Chinese-Taiwanese relations see J.-P. Cabestan u. B. Vermander, La Chine en quete de ses frontires, la confrontation Chine-Taiwan (Paris 2007).

{2} It's true though that Chen Yunlin is neither member of the Politburo nor of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China.

{3} Since its assumption of office Ma Yingjiu's government has said that it takes over the sophisticated formula worked out in 1992 before the summit of Singapore, namely that both sides acknowledge that only "one China" exists, though it should be noted that they differently interpret this concept.

{4} About context and importance of the presidential elections in 1996 see B. Vermander, Démocratie en monde chinois, in: Études 385 (1996) 437-447. The Chinese-Taiwanese relations had in the summer of 1999 even worsened when President Lee Teng-hui described them as "special relations from state to state".

{5} These "Chiang-Chen Talks" have their name from the two chief negotiators: for Taiwan Pinkung Chiang, chairman of the Foundation for the exchange across the Taiwan Strait (SEF) and for China Chen Yunlin, chairman of the Society for relations across the Taiwan Strait (ARAT).

{6} Even if they are technical agreements, their content has always a political significance. For example, the Chinese Nationalist Party accepted that the direct flights across the Strait are allowed to approach the domestic airports; this provoked protests on the part of the opposition which saw in it an impairment of the principle of Taiwan's sovereignty.

{7} In view of the counter-productive results of their aggressive initiatives, especially in the years 1996 and 2000, the Chinese leaders knew how to change their style.

{8} During the eight-year presidency of Chen nine countries have transferred their diplomatic recognition from Taiwan to China.

{9} The World Health Assembly is composed of delegates of the Member States of the World Health Organization. Its main responsibility is to authorize its program and budget and to define the political orientation of the organization.

{10} Although there are many legal obstacles, analysts think it conceivable that Hu Jintao in view of a Nobel Peace Prize, which he would share with Ma Yingjiu, would prepare and sign such an agreement.

{11} See the discussion of Ma Yingjiu with the participants of the 25th Conference Taiwan-Europe on 4. 12. 2008.

{12} The fourth joint economic forum in Shanghai in December 2008 of both parties has once again illustrated the clientele-like relationship between the Communist Party of China and the Chinese Nationalist Party. The Chinese Nationalist Party had put together a delegation of 400 persons, mostly business leaders, in order with the Chinese government to get through several measures revitalizing Taiwan's economy. At that time the chairman of the Chinese people Consultative Conference Jia Qinglin said, "China has agreed on economically supporting Taiwan if the need for this is felt" (CNA, 22.12.2008).

{13} With regard to the perspectives that opened analysts on the mainland say that the attitude of Chinese leaders and experts in recent months had changed from the priority of "crisis management" to a priority of "opportunity management".


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