The significance of the meeting between Mainland Affairs Council Minister Wang Yu-chi (王郁琦) and Taiwan Affairs Office (TAO) Director Zhang Zhijun (張志軍) is not about whether President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) and Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平) will meet at the next APEC summit. Rather, it is that it will be the first time Taiwanese and Chinese officials in charge of cross-strait affairs can meet face-to-face.
Future talks between the Straits Exchange Foundation and the Association for Relations Across the Taiwan Straits (ARATS) may be working talks. This is important because it may lead to direct talks between the council and the TAO, while political talks could enter the agenda following the Wang-Zhang meeting.
A very short time has passed between the first mention of the Wang-Zhang meeting and the actual event. The talks preceding the meeting have been kept secret. Not even legislators charged with monitoring the government on the public’s behalf have been privy to their contents. It is highly questionable that official cross-strait political talks should be kept so secret.
Most observers are trying to discern whether this meeting has any relevance to a potential meeting between Ma and Xi. However, even if such a meeting were not to take place this year, the meeting between Wang and Zhang is not trivial, as it implies that political talks have already entered the cross-strait agenda, moving the relationship from the economic to the political stage. Now, politics will take precedence over economics.
The Wang-Zhang meeting has not been the result of a natural process. When Zhang met unofficially with Wang at the APEC meeting last year, he greeted him as “chairman.” The TAO immediately ridiculed the Ma administration for having a lively imagination holding on to the mutual non-denial policy.
When ARATS Chairman Chen Deming (陳德銘) later visited Taiwan, his decision not to arrange a meeting with Wang was said to be related to the title awkwardness. Wang cannot control which title his Chinese counterpart will use. Thus far, the official form of address between the Chinese government and the MAC chairman is “nin” (您), the polite form for “you,” which is how former ARATS chairman Chen Yunlin (陳雲林) addressed former council chairperson Lai Shin-yuan (賴幸媛).
Due to the sensitivity of the talks, the symbolism of the meeting will have quite an impact internationally. Even before the concrete agenda can be discussed, such issues as form, titles and other arrangements must be given careful consideration. However, one week away from the meeting, no decision has been made on how Wang should refer to himself, the president or the country, and his counterpart has restricted the opportunity for Taiwanese officials to make any statements. Despite this, the government pushes forward while the public is left wondering about its reasons.
Some have said that cross-strait talks have advanced too far and that the Wang-Zhang meeting must now go ahead, rendering it a result of the process. If true, this only shows that the cross-strait agenda no longer places the economy ahead of politics, or simple issues ahead of complex issues, as Ma has claimed is his policy. It also shows that Xi’s policy to force political talks is working and that China is setting the pace.
One possible conclusion is that political talks will follow the Wang-Zhang meeting, in particular, when Zhang visits Taiwan at the end of this year.
Taiwan — then in the midst of the election campaign — must be alert that the elections take place under the dark clouds of cross-strait political talks.
Lai I-chung is a former head of the Democratic Progressive Party’s China affairs department.
Translated by Perry Svensson
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