The history of cross-strait relations since 1979 has always seen short-term moves to address the realities of the change that takes place continuously. We now may be witnessing another phase in this relationship.
It has often been said that while last March's presidential election was to be a benchmark of where Taiwan would go, the legislative election last month would be equally important. The changes that preceded the two elections and the results that followed were not expected, however.
China had already begun to move away from the threat that it would consider no movement toward unification as a basis for war, to a threat that any moves toward independence is what would trigger such action. The new threat remains ambiguous, but gives more breathing room for those who place economic development in a higher priority. The subsequent move to pass a law on secession will mollify those who prefer a stronger stance against Taiwan.
Taiwan's elections did not result in a quick road to determining Taiwan's national identity, but instead have brought greater pressure to either compromise on this issue or establish the means of setting the issue aside while placing higher priority on strengthening effective governance in Taiwan.
The US, with priorities in Iraq, the Middle East and halting nuclear proliferation, seems now to put its priorities in cross-strait relations on avoiding confrontation first, ahead of strengthening the spread of democracy in the region. This in turn means greater involvement in moderating any potential crisis there.
China's intentions on a broader scale, its growing economic strength and the upgrading of its military capabilities will continue to influence how the US and other major powers determine their relationship with China. At the same time, Beijing's leadership has placed itself in a position where it must continue to show determination in the eventual taking of Taiwan, while at the same time keeping open vital trade and foreign capital investment.
The most recent example of this balancing act has been the temporary agreement for direct air links during the Lunar New Year period. It raises the potential for expanding economic interchange between China and Taiwan, something the business communities on both sides want. At the same time, China has publicly stated that it will have new legislation that outlaws any secession by any entity of China (which they insist includes Taiwan).
That must please those in China who call for stronger efforts to absorb Taiwan, though it is provocative to Taiwan and challenges the US' effort to maintain the status quo.
For Taiwan, the impact of these same concerns varies. While Beijing's immediate priority on cross-strait matters is to prevent independence, its ultimate objective has remained the same: Taiwan's absorption into China. That has not changed. The two elections of last year in Taiwan show that domestic political differences on cross-strait matters remain. Here too, as in the past decade, the leadership must continue to balance actions or statements regarding cross-strait relations to smooth out these differences.
It is still not yet clear whether the two elections of last year have actually altered the differences that were indicated in the polls of that time.
Then, the largest preferences were for either the status quo or independence in the future, while immediate independence or unification was not strongly supported. Whether this same equation continues may well depend on the make-up of the new administration in Taiwan.