Fri, May 06, 2005 - Page 8 News List

A ferment in cross-strait relations

By Nat Bellocchi 白樂崎

There are many experts here in the US and in Taiwan, who believe the December legislative elections turned mainstream of public opinion back to pre-2000 days. If that is so, voters might think that troublesome issues have quieted down, and that they have no need to make difficult decisions on such matters as national security, for example.

Many of those experts in the international community who have an interest in cross-strait affairs may recall that problems between Taiwan and China were once settled much more quietly. Tensions were lower, even though Taiwan's "victories" usually came at some cost to claims to sovereignty.

Is going back to those days possible after these last few years of change? Maybe. But I'm not yet sold on that.

I remember in 2001, when Taiwan's media was drowning its readers with charges that the economy was collapsing -- due to the new administration's ineptitude. The media was very effective in undermining confidence in the government.

Eventually, it became better understood that compared to most of the Asian countries hit by the recession -- and given the US slowdown -- Taiwan had done reasonably well. One result to remember, however, was the stampede of Taiwan's high-tech industry to China, making that country one of the world's largest players, all at Taiwan's expense.

Earlier this year, the government showed it had very substantially overcome its weakness in public relations. The international and domestic attempts to explain China's "Anti-Secession" Law challenge were impressive. It did its job very well and even got a bonus when the EU backed off from lifting its arms embargo on China.

The Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) has to be given credit for reacting quickly to take the spotlight away from the government soon after.

It apparently decided the electorate was tired of the political struggles that focused on difficult sovereignty matters and prevented any movement toward addressing domestic issues.

The decision to gain high-level visits to China does not just address that perceived wish, however. It has switched the debate from a Taiwan-entity issue to a China-entity issue, while also focusing on economic matters within cross-strait relations -- with little focus on international economic relations.

It may take a few weeks before it is clear just how great an impact this "visit China strategy" has on the body politic of Taiwan. The effort by the media, not only in Taiwan but in the international community, has been impressive.

Of course, painting these visits as "historic" by putting them in the context of the Chinese civil war has helped immensely. Outside of Taiwan, how many readers, even in China, would know that the civil war was 50 years ago, that Taiwan was not involved in it, or that the previous administration in Taiwan had long since surrendered any claim to China?

No matter. Even Washington, which does know all of this, diplomatically expresses the hope that such visits might lead to dialogue between China and Taiwan (though also diplomatically suggesting that it would be better if the dialogue was between the two -- uh -- governments).

Cross-strait watchers should not be carried away, as has happened before, but should judge how greatly the media hype influences the people of Taiwan, and the international community.

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