China Power

From Fujian, China’s Xi Offers Economic Olive Branch to Taiwan

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China Power

From Fujian, China’s Xi Offers Economic Olive Branch to Taiwan

Visiting Fujian province, Chinese President Xi Jinping emphasized healthy economic ties between Taiwan and the mainland.

From Fujian, China’s Xi Offers Economic Olive Branch to Taiwan
Credit: Xi Jinping image via Kaliva / Shutterstock

After recent signs that Beijing was increasing its pressure on Taiwan’s KMT government, Chinese President Xi Jinping took a softer tone in remarks made this week. Notably, Xi’s recent comments steered clear of thorny political issues and went back to the basic foundation for the current cross-strait relationship: business ties.

Xi spent the week on an inspection tour in Fujian, the province where he cut his political teeth (including a stint as governor from 1999-2003). Fujian, as the province directly across the Taiwan Strait from Taiwan, plays a central role in cross-strait interactions, for better and for worse — Fujian is a gateway for Taiwanese businesses seeking access to the mainland, but also hosts the military deterrents China uses to keep Taiwan in check.

Though Xi’s tour included attending a military conference in Fujian, his major message for cross-strait relations focused on economics. Xi visited the Pingtan Comprehensive Experimental Zone, the mainland’s pet project for encouraging more cross-strait investment and business cooperation. While there, Xi emphasized role of Fujian in fostering economic ties between the mainland and Taiwan.

In a statement, Tawain Affairs Office spokesperson Ma Xiaoguang pointed out that Xi specifically visited Taiwanese enterprises and met with Taiwanese businesspeople during his tour of Fujian. Stressing the ethnic and cultural ties between Taiwan and the mainland, Xi said that there was “no reason” for the two sides not to join hands in joint development. Xi also praised the role of Taiwanese businesspeople in fostering a positive cross-strait relationship. Overall, Xi’s  tone during this visit represented a return to earlier, softer rhetoric toward cross-strait relations, where improved business ties were seen as acceptable progress on the road to Beijing’s eventual goal of reunification.

As part of this rhetoric, Beijing seemed to retreat from Xi’s earlier insistence that the “one country, two systems” formula was the only possible way forward for cross-strait relations. Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou flatly rejected the idea of “one country, two systems” as the basis for cross-strait relations, insisting instead that the “1992 consensus” is the preferred formula of Taiwan’s people. The “one country, two systems” model would allow Taiwan some degree of autonomy but effectively rob it of any claim to sovereignty by subordinating Taipei to Beijing’s ultimate control. Meanwhile, the “1992 consensus” frames the mainland and Taiwan as part of “one China,” but allows enough wiggle room for Taipei and Beijing to define “China” differently.

“Beijing introduced the ‘one country, two systems’ model, and when they did so, we told them that Taiwan could not possibly accept it,” Ma told the New York Times in an interview this week. “Public opinion polls have consistently shown that most people oppose it.” Instead, Ma stressed that the 1992 consensus and the ambiguous formula of “one China, respective interpretations” is still “a key foundation undergirding cross-strait relations.”

The Taiwan Affairs Office re-embraced the “1992 consensus” after Xi’s tour of Fujian. Spokesperson Ma Xiaoguang emphasized that “opposing ‘Taiwan independence’ and supporting the ‘1992 consensus’ is the foundation for the peaceful development of cross-strait relations.” That signals a return to the conscious ambiguity that allows for continued cross-strait interactions – in effect, an olive branch offered to Taiwan’s government along with an indication that Beijing is willing to refocus on the basics of expanded economic cooperation.

Despite political sensitivities (which are nothing new in the cross-strait relationship), Ma Ying-jeou remains devoted to expanding Taiwan’s trade relationship with the mainland. Speaking to the New York Times, Ma denied the charge that Taiwan is growing increasingly dependent economically on mainland China. “In 2000, mainland China (including Hong Kong) accounted for 24 percent of Taiwan’s total exports. Before I took office in 2008, our exports to the mainland had risen to a 40-percent share,” Ma said. “From last year to September of this year, 39 percent of Taiwan’s exports were shipped to mainland China. The figure did not increase but instead decreased.” Ma concluded, “The present situation warrants our attention but does not call for excessive anxiety.”

Ma Ying-jeou’s KMT government has been quick to point out that it is not directly cooperating with Beijing on the Pingtan experimental zone, but in general Ma’s administration is supportive of projects that boost cross-strait trade. In his interview with the New York Times, Ma continued to defend the controversial Cross-Strait Trade in Services Agreement, the issue at the heart of the Sunflower protests this past March. “The agreement will … be more beneficial to Taiwan” than to the mainland, Ma argued. “Blocking the agreement will only result in lowering Taiwan’s competitive standing.”