Thursday, October 8, 2009

Taiwan Eyes Loophole To Talk With China

Defense News


Taiwan Eyes Loophole To Talk With China

By Wendell Minnick

TAIPEI — Taiwan is exploring a legal loophole that would allow it and China to conduct direct talks as political parties, not as nations. The implications would have historic political and security repercussions for the region.

If successful, the formula would work like this: Chinese President Hu Jintao, general-secretary of the Communist Party of China, and Taiwan President Ma Ying-jeou, incoming chairman of the Chinese Nationalist Party, could meet as leaders of their respective parties and not as heads of state.

China refuses to conduct direct governmental talks with Taiwan, and party-to-party talks could become a reality after Ma assumes the chair in September.

“In theory, Ma’s takeover of the KMT would create the possibility for a Hu-Ma meeting, sidestepping some political sensibilities,” said Wang Dong, fellow at the Center for International & Strategic Studies at Peking University.

Lin Chong-Pin, former Taiwan deputy minister of defense, compared a Hu-Ma summit to the 1978 Anwar Sadat-Menachem Begin summit involving Egypt and Israel that led to both men sharing the Nobel Peace Prize.

“Nobody can resist the possibility of winning the Nobel Peace Prize,” said Arthur Ding, a cross-strait affairs specialist at National Chengchi University in Taiwan.
 Symbolically, the meeting would have a significant impact on cross­strait relations, but on substantive legal questions, the meeting might be little more than a handshake.

“Frankly speaking, I do not think it is possible for Taiwan and China to sign a peace accord and/or military CBMs [confidence-building measures] due to the political status issue: China will not accept Taiwan signing the accord and/or CBMs in the name of Republic of China,” Ding said. “Doing so implies China recognizes [Taiwan], a major shift from mutual nondenial to mutual recognition.”

Nevertheless, if Hu and Ma did meet, they could issue a “joint vision statement mapping out a desired peace in the Taiwan Strait in the future,” Ding said. This would be largely symbolic with no formal peace accord or CBMs. However, an “alternative for the CBMs is to take unilateral action by each side after mutual consultations,” he said. Lin said a Hu-Ma meeting would represent the beginning of a “paradigm shift in the power balance of the region.” Cross-strait economic benefits and cultural compatibilities “would lay a more formidable foundation than merely political/military accords.” 

Cautious Approach

Despite the excitement in China and Taiwan of a potential summit, there are “daunting” political realities Hu and Ma must overcome.

“In China, Hu has to make sure that the one-China principle, eventual reunification, and cutting off security relations between Taiwan and the U.S. have to be written into the joint vision statement so that no backlash will arise to jeopardize his position,” Ding said.

Meanwhile, Ma has to be careful not to anger grass-roots support for his presidency by creating the impression Taiwan has agreed to reunify with China, he noted.

The summit might have to wait until after the Taiwan presidential elections in 2012. Any prior move by Ma could cost him re-election.

“Ma is a smart man, and he knows the danger of promoting cross-strait relations too quickly,” said Zhuang Jianzhong, vice director at the Center for National Strategy Studies at Shanghai Jiao Tong University.

The window for a Hu-Ma meeting is short. “So even if the Ma-Hu meeting happens, it will be only after Ma is re-elected in March 2012 ... and shortly before Hu steps down as the party general-secretary” in the fall of 2012, Zhuang said.

Fears exist that Ma is moving too quickly to placate China and that the effort will snowball to the point where economic agreements place Taiwan in the awkward position of being reliant on China for its economic survival. Yet, if China does secure Taiwan as a cooperative security player, the strategic implications for Japan and the United States could be serious.

Chinese pressure on Taiwan could mean the closure of covert U.S. radar and signal intelligence operations on the island and the end of intelligence-sharing agreements. “The U.S. will lose its eyes and ears on China,” former Taiwan Defense Minister Michael Tsai said.

The worst-case scenario would be the creation of a new Chinese military region on Taiwan.

In that case, China could use Taiwan military bases to project force farther into the Pacific, Tsai said. The Taiwan Strait would become nothing more than an “internal sea” of China.

“China’s control of Taiwan is the beginning of its ultimate goal of controlling the first island chain,” Tsai said.

Lin said a Hu-Ma meeting would signal the beginning of the “slow ebb of U.S. influence in the region” and the emergence of an “accommodation school” in U.S. foreign policy toward China.