China, Taiwan To Hold First High-Level Meeting Since 1949
Image Credit: Wang Yu-chi (L): VOA reporter Zhang Yongtai; Zhang Zhijun (R): MFA file photo

China, Taiwan To Hold First High-Level Meeting Since 1949

Taiwan’s Mainland Affairs Council (MAC) Minister Wang Yu-chi announced that he will meet with China’s Taiwan Affairs Office (TAO) Director Zhang Zhijun in the mainland Chinese city of Nanjing on February 11. While in Nanjing, Wang will also visit the tomb of Sun Yat-sen, the father of the KMT or Nationalist Party and a celebrated figure in both China and Taiwan. Wang will travel to Shanghai for meetings on February 13 before returning to Taiwan on February 14.

The meeting will be the highest-level dialogue between officials from China and Taiwan since 1949. However, Wang and Zhang have met before — they both sat in on a meeting between Taiwan’s former Vice President Vincent Siew and Chinese President Xi Jinping on the sidelines of the APEC summit in Bali. This format was far more typical for China-Taiwan meetings: a current government official from one side, and a retired, unofficial representative from the other. During that meeting, Xi Jinping expressed his intention to “push forward the peaceful development of cross-Strait relations.”

The APEC meeting was also the occasion of Xi’s much-quoted statement that cross-strait political issues “must reach a final resolution … these issues cannot be passed on from generation to generation.” The quote sparked a flurry of speculation that Xi was angling to solve the Taiwan issue once and for all.

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Despite this, Wang Yu-chi has reassured the Taiwanese media that he is not going to Nanjing to solve the cross-strait political puzzle. In his press conference, according to the Taipei Times, Wang said that the February 11 meeting will “promote regular interactions between the MAC and TAO.” The eventual goal, in Wang’s view, is to normalize exchanges between the two governments. As a preliminary meeting, sensitive topics like cross-strait political issues and human rights are not on the docket. “I think it’s better to make this meeting simple,” said Wang.

The opposition political party, the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), both agrees and disagrees. Joseph Wu, the executive director of the DPP’s Policy Research Committee, warned Wang not to discuss certain political issues, like the “one China principle,” a possible peace agreement, or mutual military trust-building. Such issues, Wu said, would need to be put to a national referendum before commitments can be made. Instead, Wu urged Wang to focus on human rights issues and renegotiating the cross-strait service trade agreement.

According to Wang, the meeting has set a more modest agenda, including the creation of representative offices on both sides of the strait, Taiwan’s role in regional economic integration, and a formal communication mechanism between Beijing and Taipei. A brief announcement about the visit in Xinhua did not confirm that these specific topics that would be discussed, but a TAO spokesman expressed a hope that the talks “will be conducive to enhancing communication and understanding.”

The specific issues named by Wang could prove more than challenging enough to solve. Even nomenclature is hotly debated between the two sides. For example, if Zhang calls Wang by his official title of “Minister” (which would give him the same rank as Zhang), it would be taken as a sign that China is willing to deal with Taiwan on an equal, government-to-government basis. As quoted by Taipei Times, Wang said he “will be disappointed” if the TAO and Zhang do not use his official title.

The fundamental issues of how to frame government-to-government cross-strait relations has previously been a stumbling block. China does not want to acknowledge Taiwan’s government as a state government, which Beijing believes would be a violation of the “one China principle.” Taiwan, however, is very sensitive to any sign that Beijing is not granting its representatives equal status. Accordingly, small issues (such as the official title of any future cross-strait representative offices) gain outsized significance.

While one would think that the historic official meeting between Wang and Zhang is news enough, Taiwanese media were also concerned with the possibility of the February 11 meeting leading to the holy grail — an eventual meeting between Presidents Ma Ying-jeou and Xi Jinping. Wang was quick to downplay these suspicions, showing once again that the KMT must balance popular opinion (especially perceptions that it is “selling out” to China) against its desire for cross-strait stability.

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