No sooner had President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) launched his rapprochement initiative with Beijing than some international wire agencies began referring to Taiwan and China as “former bitter rivals.” This characterization of an ongoing process is not only inaccurate but also creates the false impression that the threat the Taiwan Strait represents to regional stability is a thing of the past. Nothing could be further from the truth.
While it is true that on the surface tensions between Taipei and Beijing have diminished, relations between the two have always been characterized by ups and downs. The argument could be made that the threat of war was significantly higher in the 1950s, and again in 1995-1996, than in 2000 and after, when the pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party was in power. During those eight years, however, did media outlets refer to Taiwan and China as “former bitter rivals”? Of course not.
The same fallacy applies today. By only casting a superficial glance at ties between Taipei and Beijing — tourist arrivals, the resumption of cross-strait talks and economic deals — reporters are ignoring the more complex undercurrents that still exist. If Taiwan and China were indeed “former bitter rivals,” the People’s Liberation Army would not continue its military build-up by adding to the ballistic missiles it aims at Taiwan, conducting simulations of an amphibious invasion of Taiwan or developing a variety of weapons systems — from submarines to anti-ship ballistic missiles — that could be used in a war over Taiwan. Nor would Beijing be using Chinese tourists as an economic weapon to punish Taiwan when the latter invites political figures Beijing abhors or screens documentaries banned in China.
In fact, if the two were no longer “bitter rivals,” Beijing would not be pressing for an economic cooperation framework agreement (ECFA) with so much vigor, simply for the fact that the Chinese leadership sees the agreement — and has said so openly — as a means to engulf the Taiwanese economy and make unification inevitable.
Yes, we’re seeing smiles, handshakes and long banquet tables, but anyone who knows anything about cross-strait ties would know that such a facade of politeness existed in the 1990s before the Chinese military started firing missiles into Taiwanese waters. The reality is, beyond the veneer of peace lie the same old ghosts that have made true, lasting peace in the Taiwan Strait so elusive.
Beyond China’s breakneck militarization lies a political system that is repressive, anti-democratic and unpalatable to the great majority of people in Taiwan — even those who support Ma’s policies. As long as the political systems on both sides of the Strait cannot be reconciled, meaningful peace will be impossible to achieve, at least as long as Beijing continues to harbor designs on Taiwan’s sovereignty.
Beyond all this, many things could go wrong at every turn of cross-strait talks, especially once sensitive political issues are laid on the table. If Ma were seen to be giving too much, the Taiwanese polity would threaten to undermine his efforts and could oust him from office in 2012. Conversely, if Ma were seen to be dragging his feet on unification, Beijing could grow impatient and become more belligerent in its approach. Either way, instability would be the result and it would soon become evident that the “former bitter rivals” are, in fact, still bitter rivals.