Government officials from China and Taiwan met last week for the first time in an official capacity in more than six decades. The talks were uneventful — producing modest agreements to establish communication channels and other practical arrangements — but they were symbolic of the strengthening of cross-Strait ties under President Ma Ying-jeou of Taiwan.
Since being elected in 2008, Mr. Ma has adopted a conciliatory approach toward China and pushed through a number of cooperative policies, including a free-trade agreement. While most Taiwanese strongly favor maintaining Taiwan’s functional independence, Mr. Ma has started an irreversible trend toward closer ties and political negotiation with Beijing. Economic interaction is the force that drives this trend, but it’s more comprehensive than one based on economics alone.
For decades, hostilities between the Kuomintang (K.M.T.) government in Taiwan and the Chinese Communist Party led to a policy on the Taiwan side of “no contact, no compromise and no negotiation.” Even as China opened up and Taiwanese investors and manufacturers brought the two economies together, political relations remained deadlocked. Tentative contacts in the early 1990s were stalled by what Beijing called the “secessionist” policies of former presidents Lee Teng-hui and Chen Shui-bian.
When he became president in 2008, Mr. Ma announced that, contrary to his predecessor, he would accept the idea of “one China, different interpretations” that is Beijing’s bottom-line position. Mr. Ma’s unequivocal assurances soon led to the expansion of transportation links, suspension of competition for diplomatic allies and agreements on crime, food safety, tourism and education.
But Taiwan’s separation from the mainland continues to remind China’s leaders of colonial, in particular Japanese, bullying at the end of the 19th century. The new Chinese president, Xi Jinping, has held up the “Chinese Dream” as the maxim for his leadership, aiming to recapture the prestige that was lost during “100 years of national shame.” A major component of that goal is restoring lost territory, chiefly Taiwan, which was ceded to Japan in 1895 following the first of a series of military defeats and invasions that are the source of continuing Chinese antipathy. Defeat by the Communists in the Chinese civil war forced the K.M.T., and its army and supporters, to evacuate to Taiwan, where it ruled through martial law for four decades before steering the island toward democracy in the late 1980s.
It is only in recent months that Mr. Xi has been able to devote his energy to the Taiwan issue. Since his rise to the top of the Communist Party in late 2012, Mr. Xi has been preoccupied with consolidating power and setting out an ambitious plan to reform the economy, while launching an internal anticorruption campaign and managing deteriorating relations with Japan.
Mr. Xi showed his determination to press for political talks at an Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation meeting in Bali last October, where he told a Taiwanese representative that progress toward a political resolution must be accelerated.
Now that Mr. Xi’s house is in better order, and as the China-friendly Mr. Ma enters the final two years of his presidency, there is a renewed sense of urgency in both camps.
Mr. Ma’s many opponents, including those in his own party, note that his enthusiasm for pursuing links with China is not in line with public opinion. Surveys over the past 20 years show a consistently large majority of Taiwanese, over 80 percent in the most recent poll late last year, support some version of the status quo. Support for immediate or future unification was less than 12 percent.
Mr. Ma’s approach will be put to the test in 2016 when voters go to the polls to choose his successor. Although some say that Mr. Ma has been overly accommodating, there is every reason to expect continuity in Taiwan’s policy toward China if the K.M.T. retains the presidency. A victory for the Democratic Progressive Party, on the other hand, is likely to bring about a period of uncertainty in China-Taiwan relations. Long a staunch defender of Taiwan’s autonomy, the D.P.P. has shown a willingness to engage with China, but the policy platform it recently put forward as a basis for conducting cross-Strait relations was swiftly rejected by Beijing.
Still, a D.P.P. victory would slow down the process, but is unlikely to reverse the long-term trend toward closer ties.
Taiwan’s economy depends on trade, and China is its biggest export destination and source of a huge trade surplus. China is central to the supply chains of Taiwanese manufacturers, and 80 percent of Taiwanese foreign direct investment goes to China. A significant add-on to the free trade agreement in the area of services and trade awaits ratification in Taiwan’s legislature.
Aside from this economic interdependence, China imposes its power on Taiwan in many ways, creating momentum that is difficult to withstand indefinitely. The area across the strait from Taiwan is lined with Chinese missiles. Chinese influence and opposition restricts Taiwan’s participation in international society, including signing other bilateral and regional economic agreements. China exerts influence on hundreds of thousands of Taiwanese businesspeople residing in China, and has started to target Taiwanese politics, allegedly contributing to election campaigns, mobilizing influential supporters and investing in Taiwanese media.
Against these formidable pressures, Taiwan has limited resources to call upon. Its most potent weapon is its robust democracy. The moral support that Taiwan claims from the international community for its mode of governance is an important constraint on China. Any leader in Taipei who attempts to preserve the status quo of functional independence can rightly say that the government is merely following public opinion.
The Taiwanese people desire the peace and prosperity that positive relations with China could bring, yet they do not want to give up their sovereignty or democracy to achieve it. But Beijing’s position is implacable, and its power and influence is inescapable. As it ramps up the pressure on Taiwan in different ways, there is an inevitable drift toward the unification that China craves.
Jonathan Sullivan is associate professor and deputy director of the China Policy Institute, University of Nottingham.