In pursuing current events as in playing cards, evaluating the wider atmosphere is as important as studying the specific hand one has been dealt.
Our current concerned focus on North Korea’s alarming rhetoric, and China’s caution in efforts to rein in its problem child, is understandable. However, this must be complemented by considering developments in wider Asia.
That broader perspective must include Taiwan, where extremely encouraging positive events are unfolding vis-à-vis mainland China. On April 11, Taiwan’s government advanced to parliament a bill to allow Beijing to open an official representative office on the island.
On April 15, Taiwan President Ma Ying-jeou discussed progress via video with a Stanford University audience. Former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice moderated the session, which was widely viewed around the United States.
The governing Kuomintang (KMT) Party controls the Taiwan legislature, and the proposal should become law quickly. This will facilitate China reciprocating relatively quickly. Neither side is using formal terms of diplomacy such as consulate or embassy, but that in fact is how the facilities would function.
The reality is that stable relations and de fact recognition, without fussy formalities, are moving steadily forward. The two sides were once harsh ideological rivals sharing a bitter legacy of battle and blood.
Yet beyond this legacy, 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 (ECFA) 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 reelection to the presidency in 2008 and 2012 has led to reduce tensions and increased cooperation with Beijing.
In a 2006 New York visit, 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 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 an 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.