Activists on Thursday made a very reasonable request — that Mainland Affairs Council (MAC) Minister Wang Yu-chi (王郁琦) brief the legislature before he goes to China to meet with his counterpart. In an unusually prompt reaction, Wang did so yesterday, but behind closed doors. The public is being kept as much in the dark as ever when it comes to the government’s plans for discussions with China.
The meeting will be Wang’s first trip to China in his official capacity and the first formal meeting between an MAC minister and the head of Beijing’s Taiwan Affairs Office (TAO). It is expected to take place next month. So far, the details have been kept secret. Wang has met TAO Director Zhang Zhijun (張志軍) before, and was apparently included in former vice president Vincent Siew’s (蕭萬長) APEC delegation in October last year just so he could meet Zhang when Siew got together with Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平) in Bali.
Taiwanese officials meeting with Chinese officials, whether “officially” or as part of a forum, conference or whatnot, have always addressed the Chinese by their titles. The Chinese have gone to great pains not to follow suit. Zhang calling Wang Mainland Affairs Council Minister might seem to be a step forward, but it is still far more important to know what the two men plan to discuss. All previous negotiations, from the Koo-Wang talks in Singapore in 1993 and Shanghai in 1998, to the talks that resulted in the agreements on direct regular air and sea links for cargo and passenger services in November 2008, to those that led to the Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement signed in June 2010 and last year’s service trade pact have been between the “semi-official” Straits Exchange Foundation and Beijing’s Association for Relations Across the Taiwan Straits.
That “semi-official” status meant that Taipei and Beijing could still keep each other at arm’s length. Talks between the MAC and the TAO would be government-to-government. Wang said he cannot publicly discuss the details until they are finalized, even though he said on Dec. 25 last year that he would provide such information “soon.” He did say there would be no preconditions for the talks and that one thing that would not be on the agenda was a meeting between President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) and Xi.
He is not the only one playing coy: Zhang told Taiwanese reporters in Beijing that the meeting would not take place before the Lunar New Year and details would be made public “at an appropriate time.”
However, in May last year, Zhang said one item that needed to be discussed is Taiwan’s participation in the evolving US-led Trans-Pacific Partnership and the Beijing-led Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership. There are many possible topics. Ma said last month that the issues that have stalemated negotiations on the establishment of representative offices on each side should be discussed. He also said that the government would not exclude including the issue of China’s air defense identification zone in the East China Sea.
Given Beijing’s announcement this week that foreign fishermen must seek its permission if they want to operate in the 2 million square kilometers of the South China Sea that it claims, a claim rejected by the council on Thursday, talks over water rights are clearly crucial not only for cross-strait relations, but regional ones as well.