For over 60 years, the People’s Republic of China (Beijing) and the Republic of China (Taipei) have been at odds over just which is the real China. Both maintain that there is just one China, but each argues that the other is a traitorous regime. The Straits of Taiwan is one of the places where a serious, global war could start. So, when the two sides met yesterday and agreed to open up government offices in one another’s territory, it represented at step back from the brink.
Reuters explained, “The talks between Taiwan’s Mainland Affairs Minister Wang Yu-chi and China’s Vice Foreign Minister Zhang Zhijun, who heads the Taiwan Affairs Office, were the first since the 1949 creation of the People’s Republic of China. They mark a big step towards expanding cross-strait dialogue beyond economic and trade issues.”
Ever since Beijing decided it could live with a vast capitalist counter-revolution so long as no one actually pointed it out, trade between the two has grown dramatically. Taiwan President Ma Ying-jeou made sure of this by signing several trade deals since taking office in 2008. And where there is trade, politics inevitably comes along for the ride. In business, there are always contract disputes and grey legal areas. These offices will help to reconcile such disputes. For example, the treatment of a Taiwanese businessman detained in the PRC is now to be handled more directly through the Taiwanese office in the PRC.
The maturity with which the two sides approached the deal was a welcome change from the kind of carping in which they both engaged just a few years ago. What was particularly impressive was a statement from Mr. Zhang, “We must have some imagination if [we want to] resolve some difficulties, not just for such a meeting, we should also have a bigger imagination for cross-strait future development.” Imagination is probably the most valuable commodity in global relations, especially difficult relations, but sadly, it is also the rarest of commodities in the field.
This deal doesn’t go very far in reconciling the core problem of reintegrating Taiwan into China. However, there is a window of opportunity here that both sides see. For President Ma, China has a new generation of leaders anxious to make their mark in the world. For President Xi, China has a partner in President Ma who, if not friendly to the PRC, is demonstrably less hostile than his predecessors.
Neither side is under an illusion that this is a major breakthrough and that a final resolution of the main issue is at hand. Opening offices is a relatively minor step; however, it is a step in the right direction. And in that part of the world, any step away from the brink is welcome.