Beijing never misses an opportunity to make an overture to Taiwan. Last month, Chinese President Hu Jintao, on the occasion of the centenary celebration marking the end of imperial rule in China in 1911, invoked “Father of the Nation” Sun Yat-sen to seek “peaceful reunification” with Taiwan. Ever since Chiang Kai-Shek fled to Taiwan in 1949 after the civil war in China and established his Kuomintang (KMT) government there, the relationship between the two has been marked by distrust and animosity.
In recent years, however, there have been significant developments towards normalization between the two estranged siblings. First, the Taiwan Straits Exchange Foundation (SEF) was set up in 1990. Similarly, the Association for Relations Across the Taiwan Strait (ARTS) was established in China in 1991. And, with the routing of the Democratic Progressive Party and the victory of KMT in 2008, there has been fresh impetus in the relationship between both parties. Indeed, the meeting between Hu and the KMT Chairman Wu Poh-hsiung at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing in May 2008 was a landmark event. During the meeting, Hu called for the resumption of exchanges and talks between the mainland’s ARTS and Taiwan’s SEF as soon as possible.
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Alongside improved political relations, there has also been economic engagement between both groups. While earlier trade and commerce between them was conducted through third parties, particularly Hong Kong, direct trade and commercial intercourse has now commenced. The global financial crisis provided a further impetus to China for economic engagement with Taiwan, particularly at a time when Taipei was witnessing a decline in exports, the main engine of the island’s economy.
In addition, last June, China and Taiwan signed the Comprehensive Economic Cooperation Agreement, while China’s State Council announced a plan to support the development of a special economic zone in Fujian Province. It also vowed to promote cooperation between the region and Taiwan.
Yet in spite of these upbeat developments, it’s premature to suggest that these steps will contribute to Beijing’s ultimate goal of uniting Taiwan with China. The baggage of history continues to cast a shadow, and China and Taiwan have adopted and practiced two divergent political systems. With this in mind, the Chinese leadership hopes that perhaps the Hong Kong model of “one country, two systems” may offer a solution. China’s strategy has been to showcase the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (HKSR), whereby a democratic edifice functions under a communist regime.
Although the Chinese leadership has been as keen on Taiwan’s unification with the mainland as it was with Hong Kong and Macau, the process in the case of the latter two was hastened by obligations outlined under treaties. In Hong Kong’s case, the islands around the city were leased to the United Kingdom, which was obliged to return it to the mainland. In contrast, Chiang Kai-shek’s KMT was opposed to Mao Zedong’s Communist Party and Taiwan has since treasured its own democratic ethos.
The Chinese for their part hope that perhaps greater contact and engagement will gradually lead to a better understanding and improved trust, trust that will eventually dispel any apprehensions or fear among Taiwanese. It’s with this in mind that Beijing has pushed Hong Kong’s experience of “one country, two systems,” arguing the city has been able to retain its distinctive position and hard-earned democratic government, living standards and lifestyle.
China doesn’t, at present, have any timeframe for reunification, but it undoubtedly hopes that the normalization of the relationship between the two sides may perhaps lead to some sort of breakthrough. But at a time when political opinion in Taiwan itself is sharply divided, the road to even the Hong Kong model seems like a long and arduous one.
Rup Narayan Das is a Senior Fellow at the Institute for Defense Studies and Analyses (IDSA), New Delhi.