Taiwan’s Mainland Affairs Council Minister Wang Yu-chi traveled to Nanjing yesterday, where he met with Minister Zhang Zhijun of the mainland’s Taiwan Affairs Office. The meeting itself was of historic significance, as the first high-level meeting between official government representatives from Taiwan and mainland China since 1949. However, as expected, the outcomes of the meeting were decidedly less significant.
The major agreement reached at the meeting was to create a formal dialogue mechanism between the Taiwan Affairs Office and the Mainland Affairs Council. In other words, the meeting between Wang and Zhang is likely to be the first in a series, with such interactions eventually becoming routine. In fact, Zhang has already accepted Wang’s invitation to travel to Taiwan, a visit expected to take place later this year. Taiwan and China also hope to set up official representative offices in the near future. Like many advances in cross-straits relations, this agreement is mainly important for symbolic reasons.
In the past, contact between Taiwan and the People’s Republic of China (PRC) has been carried out almost exclusively by two semi-official organizations, the mainland-based Association for Relations Across the Taiwan Straits (ARATS) and its counterpart in Taiwan, the Straits Exchange Foundation (SEF). ARATS and SEF are both technically non-government organizations, although they are imbued with the power to negotiate on behalf of their governments (for example, the historic Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement was hammered out between ARATS and SEF). Channeling interactions through nominally non-governmental organizations allowed both the PRC and Taiwan to avoid figuring out the nuances of government-to-government interaction — a thorny issue that touches on the fundamental question of Taiwan’s sovereignty.
Under the circumstances, agreeing to communicate between two official government bodies marks a new stage in cross-strait relations. However, it’s not a sea change, as both Taiwanese and Chinese media were quick to point out. Communication between TAO and MAC will not replace the existing dialogues at the semi-official level. In fact, ARATS and SEF will continue to “focus on detailed affairs and cross-Strait agreements,” according to Xinhua, making it unclear exactly what issues will be handled by the new communication between TAO and MAC.
More significantly, both Chinese and Taiwanese media underlined that the political foundation of the relationship has not changed. The “1992 consensus” remains the basis for cross-strait relations. The “1992 consensus” is a particularly pretty piece of political ambiguity — under this framework, both China and Taiwan agreed that there is “one China,” but pointedly did not agree on the definition of this “China.” Thus the PRC continues its insistence that Taiwan is a province of China that should be governed by Beijing, while Taiwan points to its own Republic of China government as the one China (the historic stance of the KMT or Nationalist Party, of which Ma Ying-jeou is the Chairman). In other words, the 1992 consensus allows for interactions between the two sides while ignoring the question of how Taiwan’s Republic of China government should interact with Beijing.
In keeping with this interpretation, Zhang Zhijun made it clear [Chinese] that China’s vision for the continued development of cross-strait relations rests on two principles: opposing Taiwanese independence and supporting the 1992 consensus. Zhang also urged for continued progress on cross-strait relations, saying that both sides should resolutely avoid any backsliding.
The fact that the PRC is satisfied with the current trajectory of cross-strait relations is worrisome to those in Taiwan who are reluctant to embrace the idea of unification. As a result, there remains a degree of ambivalence in Taiwan towards the talks, especially among those who distrust Ma Ying-jeou. The Taipei Times noted that Lai Yi-chung, the deputy director of the Taiwan Brain Trust think-tank, urged the Legislative Yuan to closely supervise cross-strait interactions. Lai said that it was clear Ma Ying-jeou’s administration was preparing for political dialogue with China, and he called this attitude “dangerous.” Cross-strait political talks remain unpopular in Taiwan, where the majority of people are satisfied with the current, ambiguous status quo.
According to Taiwan’s state news agency CNA, Taiwan’s President Ma Ying-jeou praised the “extraordinary significance” of the meeting, calling it an important marker in the peaceful development of cross-strait relations. But in a way, Ma also sought to downplay the significance by reassuring Taiwan’s people that he is not drastically changing the nature of cross-strait relations. Presidential Office spokesperson Garfie Li reiterated that the 1992 Consensus will remain the basis for future interactions, and that cross-strait relations will continue to develop under the principle of “putting Taiwan first for the benefit of the people.”