Taiwan Issues Discussed Backstage at Shangri-La
BY WENDELL MINNICK
SINGAPORE - Although it was not officially addressed, the issue of China-Taiwan relations was a backdrop to the May 30-June 1 Shangri-La Dialogue here, sponsored by the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS).
Chinese, Taiwanese and U.S. delegates at the 7th annual summit expressed both hope and fear that new negotiations by China and Taiwan could end in either détente or disaster.
China's delegation was led by Lt. Gen. Ma Xiaotian, PLA deputy chief of the General Staff, with five defense and foreign affairs officials, including Yu Hong, director, Department of Asian Affairs, Ministry of Foreign Affairs; and Maj. Gen. Jia Xiaoning, deputy chief, Foreign Affairs Office, Ministry of National Defense.
China also sent four nongovernmental academic delegates, including Zhuang Jianzhong, vice director, Center for National Strategy Studies, Shanghai Jiao Tong University.
During his speech, Ma made the perfunctory threats against Taiwan secessionist forces, but at the same time acknowledged new engagement talks between Beijing and Taipei started with the recent election of Taiwan President Ma Ying-jeou.
"At present, there have been positive developments in the situation in Taiwan, which leads to a good momentum in cross-strait relations," he said. "At the same time, secessionist forces for 'Taiwan independence' still affect Taiwanese society. That said, the mission of opposing and curbing secessionist activities remains strenuous."
Taiwan did not have official government representation since it is not recognized as a country. However, under IISS "guests" Taiwan delegates included Lin Fu-kuo, Institute of International Relations, National Chengchi University; Andrew N.D. Yang, Chinese Council of Advanced Policy Studies; and Philip Yang, National Taiwan University.
Singapore Prime Minster Lee Hsien Loong said better cross-strait relations are clearly on the horizon.
"[Chinese] President Hu Jintao has just met Mr. Wu Poh-Hsiung, the chairman of the Kuomintang [Chinese Nationalist Party in Taiwan], and stated clearly that China is willing to work with new leaders in Taiwan to resume dialogue and build trust in each other," said Lee. "On political matters, however, China will be cautious, calibrating its moves. Meanwhile, it will closely monitor [Taiwan] President Ma's actions and the trend of 'Taiwanization,' whether its purpose is more an emphasis on local customs and practices, or the creation of an identity separate and distinct from the common heritage of the 'peoples of Chinese descent."
Yang views this as a precarious balancing act for Taiwan.
"On one side, Ma wants engagement and on the other Ma wants to be close to the U.S. I certainly hope Ma's group sends a team to the Bush government to talk about the issues. The U.S. is extremely concerned about Ma's overall agenda. The U.S. wants reassurance," he said.
There are fears in Washington that Taiwan will open up too quickly to China, particularly with efforts to begin direct flights across the strait and sign economic accords. "The worst case scenario is the process will result in eventual unification," Yang said. "Taiwan has to make it abundantly clear that enhancing economic ties will not be linked to Taiwan's security and defense."
Japanese delegates attending the Dialogue are also concerned about Taiwan opening up too fast. Masashi Nishihara, president, Research Institute for Peace and Security, Tokyo, is troubled about discussions of creating a common market between China and Taiwan.
"China may use this to push its own interests. China might say to Taiwan, 'if you are going to get weapons from the U.S. then no agreement.' Taiwan will then back off from the U.S.," he said.
However, in China many view the ties as a positive opportunity. Zhuang, from the Center for National Strategic Center in Shanghai, said Beijing should seize the opportunity to promote cross strait relations.
"A peace accord and confidence-building measures are a real possibility," he said. "It is not in the U.S. interest to stop or slow down cross strait relations."
Zhuang, who has visited Taiwan on three academic exchanges, said China should respond to Ma's calls for closer relations by dismantling some of the 1,000-plus short-range ballistic missiles (SRBM) aimed at Taiwan in Fujian Province.
"In my personal view it is a gesture. I suggested this to my government a few years ago in 2003 to reduce SRBMs," he said. "With détente across the strait I think everything will change for the PLA."
Zhuang said recent positive changes in China-Taiwan-U.S. relations are partly a result of a weakening of those in the United States who argue China is a threat.
"Now they are losing. Although they have not disappeared, in the last few years they have weakened. They live in the past, in a Cold War mind-set. China has no interest in global military power, except for concerns about regional security," Zhuang said.
Richard Armitage, former U.S. deputy secretary of state, said in the short and midterm, better relations between China and Taiwan are beneficial to everyone involved.
"He [Ma] campaigned on economic improvement for Taiwan. In order to improve economically he's going to have to consolidate and increase linkages with China. And the Chinese know this perfectly," Armitage said. "But in the short and midterm there's a great lowering in tensions in the strait."
"The U.S. position has always been that we want to protect the rights of the Taiwanese to determine their own future. They democratically elected, with 60 percent of the vote, Ma and his government and Ma will take them in the direction he feels is best," said Armitage, who is now president of Armitage International.