On Feb. 11, history was made as representatives of China and Taiwan agreed to exchange representative offices. Face-to-face negotiations are led by Vice Foreign Minister Zhang Zhijun of China, who heads that government’s Taiwan Affairs Office, and Taiwan Mainland Affairs Minister Wang Yu-chi, both notably senior officials.
Neither side is using formal terms of diplomacy such as consulate or embassy, but that in fact is how the new offices will function. More direct and stable relations and de facto recognition, without fussy formalities, are moving steadily forward.
The two sides share a bitter legacy of battle and blood. In 1949, Nationalist forces of General Chiang Kai-shek evacuated to Taiwan. Mao Zedong’s armies controlled the mainland of China. Except for the island territory, communist revolution was complete.
The Korean War of 1950-53 made the Cold War global, with China and the United States direct combatants. U.S. commitment to Taiwan security became explicit.
The latest agreement reflects the economic interests of Beijing and Taipei. Last April, Taiwan President Ma Ying-jeou discussed progress via international video with a Stanford University audience. Former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice moderated the session. Importance of relations with the mainland was underscored. President Ma’s governing Kuomintang (KMT) Party controls the Taiwan legislature, where mainland cooperation remains controversial.
A firm foundation of cooperation between Taiwan and mainland China steadily expands. In November 2008, historic negotiations concluded with comprehensive trade agreements, including direct shipping, expansion of weekly passenger flights from 36 to 108, and introduction of up to 60 cargo flights per month.
In 2010, the bilateral Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement was concluded. This has been a major triumph for Taiwan President Ma Ying-jeou, leader of the KMT and former mayor of Taipei. His election and re-election to the presidency in 2008 and 2012 has led to reduce tensions and increased cooperation with Beijing.
In a 2006 visit to New York, Ma emphasized the 1992 agreement with Beijing to accept the concept of "one China" while differing on specifics. That accord is fundamental to the fitful but forward collaboration. Ma’s dramatic reaffirmation of this understanding while in America’s financial capital was shrewd politics.
Pragmatism characterizes Taiwan’s approach to mainland China. Following Washington’s formal diplomatic recognition of Beijing in 1978, a process begun by President Richard Nixon’s 1972 visit, Taipei immediately launched a comprehensive essentially non-confrontational strategic response.
Consular offices around the U.S. were expanded. State government officials, along with members of Congress, were assiduously courted. Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton was among those who visited Taiwan. Positive congressional ties became an especially important priority, which clearly paid dividends over the years. Continued U.S. arms aid is one result.
Taiwan has become an essential investor for the enormous industrial revolution taking place on the mainland. Commercially successful, generally well-educated overseas Chinese in turn are a vital source of capital for the mainland. Expatriate Chinese also vote in Taiwan elections.
The 2008 and 2010 agreements are not only inherently important but a useful barometer of relations between China and Taiwan. From time to time, U.S. arms aid to Taiwan has threatened to derail cooperation – but the process survives. Ending economic cooperation now would bring enormous costs.
The Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement now stands as a historic milestone in China’s peaceful integration. Beijing from time to time has delayed but not destroyed this now definitive dialogue.
So far, trade and investment have trumped ideology.