Mainland Affairs Council Minister Wang Yu-chi (王郁琦) visited China last month, where he attended two meetings with his Chinese counterpart, Taiwan Affairs Office (TAO) Minister Zhang Zhijun (張志軍). In Taiwan, this news was either welcomed or treated with suspicion, depending on individual takes on what the nation’s China policy ought to be. And while the event was generally hotly debated in many countries, it was nevertheless possible to discern different leanings in public opinion, depending on the strategic interests of that country.
In Japan, for example, many news outlets covering the talks, including the Yomiuri Shimbun, offered their own commentary. In the US, after the White House National Security Council and the US Department of State had expressed the usual pleasantries welcoming the news, the New York Times editorial noted that this was the first meeting of government officials from Taiwan and China since 1949, the result of efforts to reduce tensions between the two countries, and was worth encouraging for the hope of future peace that it represented.
Distance has a way of coloring one’s perspective. It clearly was a factor in how the Wang-Zhang talks were received. What are Taiwanese, who are slap bang in the thick of it, to make of the confusion caused by conflicting ideas born of different national interests, especially when it comes to talking to international allies? Taiwan is a small country and this matter is of vital importance.
History is littered with examples of how a general assessment of major events by observers from afar has diverged from the more detailed, nuanced assessment from those on the ground. In the long run, however, the trends and tendencies that outside observers have hoped to extrapolate have not been borne out by subsequent developments.
In 1994, the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to then-Palestinian Liberation Organization leader Yasser Arafat, then Israeli-minister of foreign affairs Shimon Peres and then-Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin. The reason was Israel and Palestine having signed the US-mediated Oslo Accord the previous year — an event met with universal approval by an international community that hailed it as historically significant, despite the profound problems that remained between the parties. In reality, the military wing of Hamas continued its attacks and Rabin was assassinated by an Israeli extremist not long after receiving his Nobel. Morever, 24 years later, the US secretary of state still shuttles between Israel and the Palestinian Territories amid the unending conflict.
The standoff between North and South Korea may be more familiar in East Asia. In 2000, then-South Korean president Kim Dae-jung went to Pyongyang to meet then-North Korean leader Kim Jong-il. The summit was deemed to be of similarly historic significance and complemented the US’ movement away from its containment policy. It won Kim Dae-jung a Nobel Peace Prize. Nevertheless, what was a more persuasive summation of the reality as lived by South Koreans? Kim Dae-jung’s “Sunshine Policy,” or the concern that North Korea posed a threat?
Conclusions drawn by distant observers should not overly deviate from local reality.
Assessing the Wang-Zhang talks with this in mind, it is possible to differentiate reality from ideology. A comparison between what Wang and Zhang each wanted to achieve in the talks is informative. Just listen to what was said in the respective post-meeting international press conferences in China and Taiwan.