The 1993 talks in Singapore between then-Straits Exchange Foundation (SEF) chairman Koo Chen-fu (辜振甫) and then-Association for Relations Across the Taiwan Straits (ARATS) chairman Wang Daohan (汪道涵) established a systematized mechanism for direct contact and meetings between the ARATS and SEF.
On Tuesday last week, Mainland Affairs Council Minister Wang Yu-chi (王郁琦) led a Taiwanese delegation on an official visit to China, where he took part in a meeting with his Chinese counterpart, Taiwan Affairs Office (TAO) Minister Zhang Zhijun (張志軍) in Nanjing.
In this initial meeting, Wang and Zhang agreed to establish an official cross-strait mechanism for direct dialogue on an equal footing. This has several significant implications for the development of cross-strait relations.
First, the meeting is not only the first official visit to China by a ministerial-level government official from Taiwan, something of historical significance in and of itself, but it also lays the foundations for a reciprocal visit to Taiwan by Zhang and allows official talks between ministerial-level officials from either side of the Taiwan Strait, during which they will be able to address each other using their official titles.
Second, this opens the way for ministerial-level officials to proceed with face-to-face talks on major issues. Although the majority of the 19 cross-strait agreements already signed facilitate contact between officials from the competent authorities among targeted sectors, the reciprocal framework for contact between the council and the TAO established in this recent agreement is a first because it allows for talks between their respective heads.
Third, this communication mechanism will serve as the ideal model for normalized exchanges and contacts between officials in other departments on either side of the Taiwan Strait.
Fourth, when it comes to cross-strait relations — apart from the ministries of national defense or foreign affairs and the considerable implications regarding national sovereignty that they entail — the council and the TAO are not only the most important official institutions, they also deal with sensitive issues that the respective heads of state would normally have to address personally.
As a result, this agreement has considerable ramifications for broadening cross-strait economic and trade development, as well as Taiwan’s active participation in regional economic consolidation agreements such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) or the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP).
Furthermore, it accelerates the establishment of political mutual trust, the development of political dialogue, dealing with political issues and even future high-level contact and exchanges.
Although Wang’s visit to China and his talks with Zhang do have the significance noted above, the development of cross-strait relations will be constrained by a range of factors, both objective and subjective and internal and external, that will be difficult to navigate.
Therefore, the nation must proceed with caution to avoid making the same mistakes that followed the Koo-Wang talks, which were followed by several years of rocky cross-strait relations.
Beijing’s cautious reporting on Wang’s visit and his meeting with Zhang — referring to Wang verbally as “chairman,” but in press conferences as “the head of the Mainland Affairs Council” — the lack of consensus on humanitarian visits and the requirements and precautions concerning Wang’s visit all demonstrate Beijing’s concerns about the risk in cross-strait dialogues and the potential for inadvertently highlighting that China and Taiwan are separate countries.