Monday, April 14, 2008

historic meeting

Much discussion in the media about the weekend meeting between China's President Hu Jintao and Taiwan's vice-president elect Vincent Siew, who takes office in May.

In his first comments on the meeting, President-elect Ma Ying-jeou, at a press conference on Monday said the talks in China were an auspicious start, helping to break the ice. But, he also cautioned that there were many problems and challenges and said there was still a long way to go in improving relations with China, which regards Taiwan as part of its territory .

In a related move, Mr Ma announced that Chiang Pin-kung, the deputy chairman of his party, the Kuomintang, would be appointed head of a semi official organisation, the Straits Exchange Foundation, to handle future exchanges with China and charged with resuming talks with China soon after Mr Ma is sworn into office in May.

Here is an analysis piece I wrote for the BBC website:

A high level meeting between China's President, Hu Jintao, and the man who will become Taiwan's next Vice-President, Vincent Siew, was historic - the highest level meeting between officials the two sides since 1949.

It was also, many analysts believe, likely to set the two sides on a path for better relations in the future.

Pictures of the men shaking hands and sitting down together in China's Hainan island, on the sidelines of the Boao Forum for Asia, were splashed on the front pages of Taiwan's newspapers.

Among the Chinese-language papers, the United Daily News said the meeting had created a "great opportunity because of their [the two men's] pragmatism and low-key approach".

The Apple Daily called the meeting "ice-breaking", saying it had created a "win-win opportunity".

But in its commentary, the Liberty Times - which generally supports the governing Democratic Progressive Party - was critical.

"Hu Jintao prepared a trap and [Taiwan President-elect] Ma [Ying-jeou] and Siew have been caught," reads its headline.

The paper quotes a traditional Taiwanese saying, suggesting Mr Siew's visit to China was "like asking for a medical prescription from a ghost" - suggesting he was seeking help from someone who would cause harm.
"Even if this is morphine or another kind of drug which will kill pain in the short term, it will kill Taiwan in the long-term," it said.

Most analysts, though, believe the meeting has brought positive results.
"I think it was a tremendously symbolic meeting - and also one that's ice-breaking," said Chao Chien-Min, who teaches Chinese politics and cross-strait relations at National Chengchi University.

"Some issues were ironed out and it's highly likely that we will see weekend charter flights between the two sides by 4 July. We could even see Chinese tourists coming here before the end of the year."

It was noted that Mr Siew was seated among VIPs at the forum
Those were pledges that Mr Siew and Mr Ma had made as part of their campaign to revive Taiwan's stagnant economy - which helped them win last month's presidential elections by a wide margin.

But for the plan to be realised, China's co-operation is essential. And that looks increasingly likely following Saturday's meeting.

In comments carried by China's state-run Xinhua news agency, President Hu said the two sides were facing an "historical opportunity", which needed joint efforts from both sides for further progress.
He said that the economic forum had "inspired us to think deeply about cross-straits economic exchanges and co-operation under the new circumstances".

He also backed two of Mr Siew's proposals: opening up Taiwan to more Chinese tourists and allowing weekend charter flights "as soon as possible".

There has been no direct air travel between the two sides since they split amid civil war in 1949. Mr Siew and his delegation had to travel to China via Hong Kong.

Mr Siew's decision to travel to the forum was a bold step, carrying significant risks as well as opportunities. Some members of the governing Democratic Progressive Party, or DPP, had opposed the visit, saying it could undermine Taiwan's dignity and status in any future dealings with Chinese officials.

"Interaction between two hostile countries with very different ideas is good," said senior DPP legislator, Trong Chai, "but we must understand the position and ideas of the other side. The other side should respect the fact that Taiwan is an independent, sovereign country. Mr Siew didn't receive that kind of treatment."

But others disagreed. Mr Siew was attending the forum in a private capacity - as head of a private, non-government organisation promoting trade with China. Those studying the nuances of his treatment were quick to note that he was seated in the front row, reserved for VIPs, and invited to join the centre table at a state banquet.

Both sides seemed determined to avoid sensitive political issues, focusing on economics. Despite their political differences, economic ties between the two sides have grown over the past two decades. China is now Taiwan's top trading partner and investment destination.

"The atmosphere was good; the discussion was candid and they [China] didn't do anything to belittle us. It seems both sides were sincere," said veteran China analyst, George Tsai, professor at Taipei's Chinese Culture University.

"It's melting the ice a few more inches - moving things in the right direction, and that's very helpful.

Some analysts have suggested China was willing to work for a good outcome, because it was keen to get good publicity and deflect attention away from its troubles in Tibet.

Some say China may want good publicity after protests over Tibet
Certainly, there has been a positive response to the meeting, with Washington praising the start of dialogue.

Former US Secretary of State, Colin Powell, an attendee at the forum, met Mr Siew and said he believed the talks were "good news for the region". Mr Powell told reporters that "the two sides have begun down a new path".

But Beijing also realises that last month's elections in Taiwan presented a golden opportunity. When the people of Taiwan cast their ballots, they voted for change, including a less fractious relationship with Beijing than under the previous president, Chen Shui-bian, whose pro-independence rhetoric and policies had provoked and infuriated officials in China.
No-one is pretending that the task will be easy.

But the Hu-Siew meeting is an indication that if both sides are prepared to be more pragmatic, steps can be taken to build up mutual trust and increase interaction. Only then, and in the longer term, can the tougher, political issues start to be addressed.


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