Bei­jing braces for post-Ma Tai­wan

The China Post - - COMMENTARY -

Cross Strait re­la­tions) won’t be smooth sail­ing all the way from now on.” Those were the stern words Chen Dem­ing ( ), pres­i­dent of China’s As­so­ci­a­tion for Re­la­tions Across the Tai­wan Straits (ARATS), de­liv­ered at the talk be­tween cross-strait top ne­go­tia­tors in Fuzhou, Fu­jian yesterday, an oc­ca­sion usu­ally marked by op­ti­mistic com­ments of “cross-strait brother­hood” from the both sides.

It was the 11th talk be­tween Bei­jing and Taipei top of­fi­cials since 2008, when cross-strait ties warmed un­der Pres­i­dent Ma Ying-jeou’s de­tente pol­icy. Since then, both sides have made sev­eral key agree­ments, in­clud­ing the land­mark Eco­nomic Co­op­er­a­tion Frame­work Agree­ment (ECFA) and the con­tro­ver­sial Trade in Ser­vices Agree­ment. The latest talk saw the sign­ing of the pacts on dou­ble tax­a­tion avoid­ance and avi­a­tion safety yesterday.

Even of­fi­cials from both sides are try­ing to rush in another round of ne­go­ti­a­tions be­fore Ma’s ten­ure ends. Chen, the top Chi­nese ne­go­tia­tor, how­ever, had some grave things to say. He stressed that things might be as good as it gets now, a thinly veiled warn­ing for the wors­en­ing of cross-strait ties af­ter the 2016 pres­i­den­tial elec­tion in Tai­wan. While ex­press­ing that the “fam­ily-like” re­la­tions be­tween main­land China and Tai­wan will not change re­gard­less of the re­sult of the elec­tion, Chen quoted Chi­nese leader Xi Jin­ping in stress­ing that “The ‘1992 Con­sen­sus’ is our po­lit­i­cal com­mon ground; deny the ‘1992 Con­sen­sus’ and the moun­tains will shake.”

Chen’s warn­ing were re­in­forced later by China’s Tai­wan Af­fairs Of­fice (TAO) Di­rec­tor Zhang Zhi­jun ( ), who said that “all thing we have achieved now could col­lapse” with­out the “1992 Con­sen­sus,” hint­ing that signed crossstrait agree­ments could be up­ended if Tai­wan de­nies the con­sen­sus of “one China, dif­fer­ent in­ter­pre­ta­tions.”

These tough words from Chi­nese of­fi­cials are rather less an at­tempt to in­flu­ence the 2016 elec­tion than a res­ig­na­tion to a post-Ma Tai­wan that is pos­si­bly less China-friendly. While Zhang did call for Tai­wanese peo­ple “to make a wise choice,” the of­fi­cials’ warn­ings were aimed for the next ad­min­is­tra­tion. Since the 1996 Tai­wan Strait Cri­sis, Chi­nese of­fi­cials have re­al­ized that threats only gen­er­ate the op­po­site of their de­sired ef­fect from de­fi­ant Tai­wanese vot­ers. Bei­jing has learned to hold its fire (both lit­er­ally and metaphor­i­cally) in cam­paign sea­son. The de­ci­sion to use strong words re­sem­bles not a change of tac­tics but a re­al­iza­tion that the re­sult of the 2016 elec­tion is al­ready a fore­gone con­clu­sion.

In fact, no mat­ter the re­sult of the elec­tion, cross-strait ties will en­ter into the “deep-sea zone” af­ter the low-hang­ing fruits of eco­nomic agree­ments have been picked. As early as 2013, the Chi­nese leader Xi showed his im­pa­tience on cross-strait talk progress, say­ing it was time for po­lit­i­cal talks “to pro­mote the peace­ful de­vel­op­ment of cross-strait ties and peace­ful uni­fi­ca­tion.” Even by the stan­dard of Pres­i­dent Ma, who sug­gested that it will take decades for both side to reach the point to con­sider uni­fi­ca­tion, Xi’s timetable would be im­pos­si­bly rushed.

While even a pos­si­ble gov­ern­ment by the pro-in­de­pen­dence Demo­cratic Pro­gres­sive Party will be prag­matic enough not to undo the progress in cross-strait eco­nomic ties made dur­ing Ma’s ten­ure, new ground will be hard to achieve. The cur­rent trend of lo­cal­iza­tion in Tai­wanese pol­i­tics has sim­ply made cross-strait re­la­tions too much of a toxic is­sue for politi­cians. More im­por­tantly, as the Chi­nese econ­omy slows down, Bei­jing will have less lever­age to of­fer tempt­ing deals to Tai­wan or to pla­cate hard-lin­ers back home.

The warm­ing of cross-strait re­la­tions is one of the key events in the past decade in Asia. While there are ar­gu­ments as to whether the means the Ma ad­min­is­tra­tion has em­ployed jus­tify the ends, it is un­de­ni­able that the less­en­ing of ten­sions in what was once one of the most dan­ger­ous crises in the world is welcome in not only Tai­wan, but China too. When ne­go­tia­tors meet for fu­ture rounds of meet­ings, they will be work­ing un­der dif­fer­ent and prob­a­bly much harder cir­cum­stances. They will face pres­sure from all sides — the worst kind would be those from home. They will need wis­dom and prin­ci­ples to con­tinue the talks to bring peace and pros­per­ity to the re­gion.

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