At the rate that the meetings between Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) and Beijing leaders are being announced, a few more weeks and we’ll be seeing the region’s equivalent of the Camp David meetings. With the administration of President Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁) coming to an end in less than a month, Taiwan and China seem poised to enter the age of “peace talks.”
What remains to be seen, however, is whether the talks will be substantive discussions that could lead to real conflict resolution or, as happened with the Israelis and Palestinians, become talk for the sake of talk, with no real promise of peace.
The key to successful negotiations lies in parties treating each other as equals. One of the principal reasons why the Israeli-Palestinian talks have led nowhere other than deeper savagery is that the negotiating playing field was anything but level, which meant that the stronger side was able to use the semblance of “peace talks” to impose realities on the ground that were largely in its favor. Former Israeli prime minister Ehud Barak’s offer at Camp David in 2000, lauded by many as a “courageous” overture to the Palestinians, was in fact less than what, by law and numerous UN resolutions, should have been given to Palestinians. And yet, given the power gap, the weaker party was blamed for the failure of Camp David and the descent into reciprocal violence that ensued.
While the conflict pitting Israel against the Palestinians is substantially different from that between Taiwan and China, lessons can nevertheless be learned and, if a true, peaceful resolution to the conflict is to emerge, the same mistakes avoided.
The KMT negotiators who will be heading to China in the coming months must make it clear from the outset that they are engaging on behalf of Taiwan’s interests.
Emissaries such as former KMT chairman Lien Chan (連戰), however, give us little reason to hope. His first meeting with Chinese President Hu Jintao (胡錦濤) in 2005 came hot on the heels of Beijing’s “Anti-Secession” Law, which should have been reason enough for any politician who has Taiwan’s interests at heart to cancel the meeting. Instead, as you read this, Lien is blessing that historic meeting with yet another one.
While in office, former president Lee Teng-hui (李登輝) highlighted Beijing’s unwillingness to engage in dialogue as equals on both sides of the Taiwan Strait. Lee didn’t back down, which led to a freeze in talks. After the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) won the 2000 presidential election, Beijing didn’t even bother to seek to negotiate, knowing full well that the Chen administration would never negotiate under a handicap.
Beijing now sees a renewed chance for dialogue. But will it be on its terms, as was the case in the 1990s, or will it be more flexible, more willing to avoid the catastrophically inappropriate road taken by Israeli negotiators? The onus will be on it to determine the nature of the talks.
The KMT, meanwhile, must pay close attention to the character of Beijing’s approach to negotiation and should immediately pull out if it becomes apparent that Taiwan is not being treated as an equal. By choosing to negotiate from a position of weakness, the KMT would be unable to serve the interests of Taiwan and quickly see its supporter base dwindle. This would also harden its opponents, rekindle the kind of nationalistic fervor it has sought to mute and represent the surest path to a return of the DPP in 2012.