Clare G Richardson-Barlow

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The Sinophiles’ White Whale: PRC-ROC Relations

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For the first time in 65 years Taiwan and China have renewed talks–not since the split between the two “parties” in 1949 have there been normalized relations between the two Chinas.

Taiwan’s Mainland Affairs Council (MAC) and China’s Taiwan Affairs Office met in Nanjing, China on Tuesday, February 11, 2014–at the same time I was visiting Taiwan for my first time in 25 years. As luck would have it my trip was business related, hosted by the Taipei Economic and Cultural Representative Office (TECRO) with an official delegation of former government representatives and business leaders from the U.S., allowing me insight into off-the-record conversations on a variety of issues that are of relevance to Taiwan’s other important relationship, the U.S.

The author with Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou

While the meetings were as amazing as the delegation members themselves, there were a few striking takeaways for this amateur sinophile. They are as follows:

1.) Taiwan…actually matters. I mean this in the best possible way–coming from an energy and trade background, Taiwan clearly matters to the mainland, and vice-versa. But I have always been under the impression that the status quo of cross-strait relations will forever remain the status quo–neither side will budge and the debate is a moot point.

So what is the point in even pretending change is on the horizon?  One day they will be signing a trade agreement, the next day they will be pointing missiles at each other. The relationship will forever be sticky, and messy, and undefinable.

Well, as it turns out, the status quo is still the status quo, but what many in Taiwan see as actual progress was happening right under our nose at the cross-strait talks in Nanjing. Sure, these talks didn’t include either player’s president (they couldn’t–Taiwan is not a recognized country, so Xi Jinping, President of Mainland China, could never meet with Ma Ying-jeou, President of Taiwan. Further, because Taiwan is so adamant about its status as an independent, democratic China, Ma Ying-jeou could never stoop to meeting with anyone less than the President of China. Talk about complicated), but they do represent warming relations between two nemesis.

2.) Security is Taiwan’s top priority. This may not come as a surprise to most cross-strait experts. However, to other policy analysts this is surprising when compared to the U.S. government’s priorities–defense matters (our government spending shows us that every year come appropriations time), but so do a lot of other issues that are constantly (hotly) debated among our leaders. Cross-strait relations, however, define the majority of Taiwanese politics–from the current President’s approval rating, to the opposition party’s platform for the coming elections, to the new interest from Taiwan in joining the Trans-Pacific Trade Partnership, Taiwan is obsessed with its neighbor. Rightfully so, of course (similar to other cross-border tensions in Asia that will remain unnamed), but seeing first hand via the Taiwanese Navy, Air Force, and multiple unnamed Ministries the way in which all conversations about Taiwan’s interests come back to China really hammers home the point that cross-strait relations are, literally, everything.

3.) Mainland China is in a really, really good position.

Today China has a monopoly on trade, and Taiwan is a significant part of that monopoly (China represents 21% of Taiwan’s total trade; almost 30% if you include Hong Kong). Take, for example, this great graphic posted by Ian Bremmer on February 27, 2014 on Twitter:

Posted on Twitter by Ian Bremmer, 27 Feb 2014.

Posted on Twitter by Ian Bremmer, 27 Feb 2014.

China, clearly, has the upper hand in the region, leaving smaller economies like Taiwan little choice but to do their best to walk on economic eggshells. Not only does China have the economic leverage, they have the time to wait out Taiwan’s battling political parties and indecisive constituents, and the regional relationships to continue “alienating” Taiwan (to borrow a common phrase used in Taiwan to describe the one-sided Cross-strait relationship).

4.) This potential patience on the PRC’s part brings me to my last point–and one remaining question: Why does a territorial dispute, between two immensely different (some would argue unfairly matched) political foes,  matter except for reasons of principle? Taiwan, it is clear based upon my experience there, is  a democratic China. The culture is the same (nearly), the language is the same (nearly), the history is the same (nearly), but the political system is so different…So, I guess my final conclusion is that Taiwan and China are as similar as… North Korea and South Korea.

Just kidding. My real conclusion is that I, as a person who has been educated in the politics of Mainland China, was unsure what to expect going to Taiwan but was confident I had a firm understanding of the cross-strait dynamics. And as a result my boat was seriously rocked. I may not have a stance on the cross-strait relationship now, but I certainly am more comfortable with the realization that cross-strait relations are much, much grayer than I originally thought.

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