This week, Taiwan’s Sunflower Movement protestors left the Legislative Yuan after a three-week sit-in. While the most eye-catching part of the Sunflower Movement has ended, the next phase could have much longer-lasting implications for Taiwan, and for cross-strait relations. The Sunflower protestors have promised to continue their campaign to safeguard Taiwan and its people from what they see as overstepping by the KMT-controlled government. And their influence on politics, should the movement keep its momentum, will naturally affect the future of cross-strait ties.
One of the protestors’ major demands, a legislative mechanism to oversee cross-strait agreements, has the potential to alter the way Taipei and Beijing interact. Previously, agreements such as the Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement (ECFA) and its controversial follow-up, the Cross-Strait Service Trade Agreement (CSSTA), were negotiated jointly by the semi-official bodies that handle cross-strait relations, the Straits Exchange Foundation in Taiwan and the Association for Relations Across the Taiwan Strait in China. In Taiwan, the ECFA was then approved by the Legislative Yuan—the CSSTA, due to the Sunflower Movement, has not yet been approved. In the future, according to the Sunflower plan, such deals will face more intensive legislative oversight, throwing a democratic wrench into cross-strait negotiations.
Despite the potential for a shift in cross-strait ties, Beijing and Taipei have both decided to carry on as usual. China and Taiwan had a chance to return to normalcy somewhat this week, with former Taiwan politician Vincent Siew in Hainan for the Boao Forum for Asia. Siew, who served as Vice President during Ma Ying-jeou’s first term, met with Chinese Premier Li Keqiang and Zhang Zhijun, the director of China’s Taiwan Affairs Office. The meetings attempted to convey an image of ‘business as usual’ for cross-strait ties.
In his meeting with Li Keqang, Siew stuck to an economic agenda. Siew told reporters after the meeting that he had expressed to Li “Taiwanese people’s three major concerns:” that Taiwan and China could go from partners to rivals; that trade barriers restrict Taiwan’s access to mainland markets; and that Taiwan “urgently needs” to join the ongoing process of regional economic integration. Diplomatically, Siew apparently did not mention the deeper existential concern some in Taiwan have about being subsumed by mainland China.
To allay these concerns, Siew recommended that China and Taiwan agree to link cross-strait economic ties with Taiwan’s regional economic integration—in essence, having China “reward” Taiwan for cross-strait deals by not blocking Taiwan’s access to regional trade pacts such as the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) and the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP).
For his part, Li said that China was willing to offer Taiwan increased access to China’s markets, and even to “open up” economically for Taiwan before opening further to foreign countries. Li also cautiously affirmed Siew’s proposal, saying that closer economic ties between China and Taiwan “will create better conditions” for Taiwan to join other regional trade pacts. Though Siew made it clear that he did not discuss the recent protests with Li, Li may have been indirectly referencing those events when he encouraged “Taiwan compatriots” to “seize the opportunities” afforded by greater economic cooperation. Li also said that economic cooperation has benefited both sides of the Taiwan Strait. It’s a customary remark to make during such a meeting, but the Sunflower Movement made it clear that some in Taiwan would question that assertion.
While Li and Siew didn’t discuss the Sunflower Movement, Zhang Zhijun did make some comments about the protests to reporters. According to China Daily, Zhang said that the protests were driven by the fear of some in Taiwan “that only large companies could benefit” from the CSSTA. While partially true, this explanation allowed Zhang to ignore the strong sense within the Sunflower Movement that Taiwan should not get too close to mainland China.
Zhang was adamant that the Sunflower Movement would not affect the development of cross-strait relations. It’s clear that for both Beijing and the KMT, despite the protests, little has changed in the relationship. The KMT still hopes to use economic integration with China as a springboard to broader regional trade pacts, and Beijing still hopes to continue deepening economic and cultural ties with Taiwan as a means to eventual reunification.
At this point, however, it’s unclear whether the two sides will be allowed to continue along this same path, or whether popular protests in Taiwan will force the KMT at least to change tactics. The eventual fate of the CSSTA will be a good bellwether—Ma has made it clear he still wants it ratified before the approval of the new legislative oversight mechanism. Should he succeed, at long last, in pushing the bill through the legislature, cross-strait ties will be back on Ma’s preferred track. If not, the world will have to wait and see what cross-strait strategy Taiwan adopts next.