President Ma Ying-jeou’s (馬英九) election and the return to power of the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) in 2008 opened the door for rapprochement with China and marked a significant change in the cross-strait dynamic. Equally important, the Chinese leadership has also changed its approach to Taiwan.
Former Chinese president Hu Jintao (胡錦濤) eschewed the threat of force and placed greater emphasis on other means of influence to avoid possible military confrontation with the US, which has maintained a protective security relationship with Taiwan as mandated by its Taiwan Relations Act.
Hu is said to have confided to his inner circles that it is both easier and less expensive to “buy” than to militarily conquer Taiwan. Hence Beijing has been steadily acting on this logic through economic means and a wily united front operation to make inroads into corporate Taiwan, the ruling and opposition parties’ media, and at the grassroots level to enhance Beijing’s outreach and control over the nation in order to bring about unification.
In 2009, China and Taiwan signed an Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement (ECFA) including 18 specific agreements to normalize economic relations and liberalize Taiwan’s trade and investment with China. There have been 670 cross-strait flights weekly, and Taiwan’s sightseeing sites nowadays are crowded with Chinese tourists — 2.8 million visited Taiwan last year.
Reinforcing this gradual shift toward Beijing are Taiwan’s large enterprises and business leaders, who have benefited from the liberalization of cross-strait trade and investment made possible by the ECFA. Moreover, Beijing has skillfully utilized such economic gatherings as the Boao Forum and the Nanjing Forum to reach out and patronize Taiwan’s business leaders.
Most of the business elite have thus become staunch supporters of cross-strait rapprochement and Beijing’s cause. During the presidential and parliamentary elections in 2012, for example, quite a few Taiwanese business tycoons campaigned for Ma’s re-election and tens of thousands of Taiwanese businesspeople chartered 375 special flights to return to Taiwan to cast their votes — presumably for Ma and the KMT’s legislative candidates.
As part of its political, information and united front operations in Taiwan, Beijing has worked through local merchants who have a business stake in China to acquire Taiwanese newspapers and TV stations. Beijing now can direct these media outlets and others that have received Chinese funding to propagate politically “correct” information.
Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平), who succeeded Hu as Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and national leader, has continued Hu’s overall approach toward Taiwan, except he is pushing harder and faster to implement Beijing’s policy agenda on the nation.
In politics, Beijing is exerting immense pressure on the Ma regime toward more cross-strait political dialogue that will lead to a peace agreement. Ma so far has put forth a formula of “economics first, politics later” to restrict cross-strait interaction to economic relations.
On Oct. 6 last year, Xi reportedly told Ma’s special envoy to the APEC summit: “The issue must step by step reach a final resolution and it cannot be passed on from generation to generation.”
These remarks to former Taiwanese vice president Vincent Siew (蕭萬長) are widely interpreted as an expression of Beijing’s impatience with Ma’s stonewalling against cross-strait political dialogue.
In economics, Beijing sought to advance cross-strait integration last year with a cross-strait service trade agreement. From Beijing’s perspective, this agreement is intended also to perform vital political and united front functions in Taiwan. As shown by the experience of Hong Kong, the agreement will provide legal cover for China’s agents to live and work throughout Taiwan. Through Chinese enterprises and shops, China’s operatives would continue to build up that country’s resources, and strengthen its capability to influence and shape Taiwan’s political process and policy efforts toward peaceful unification without firing a shot.
With the seven-in-one elections to be held in November this year and the presidential and legislative elections in 2016, many KMT leaders — and Beijing — are apprehensive that voters could reject KMT candidates in November and vote the KMT government out of office in 2016. Beijing has much at stake and is looking for ways to cope with a weakened Ma administration.
Most significantly, Beijing is attempting to hand-pick a candidate to run for the mayor’s office in Taipei. Sean Lien (連勝文) has formidable credentials: He seems quite popular in Taipei and enjoys the support of the pro-China media, leading the polls even before officially having announced his candidacy. Lien comes from a wealthy and well-connected family and is the son of former vice president and former KMT chairman Lien Chan (連戰), who, as Beijing’s principal interlocutor in Taiwan, enjoys Beijing’s confidence and has met several times with Hu and Xi. Moreover, Xi has also met Sean Lien and appears to be fond of him, joking about his height during a meeting at the Great Hall of the People in Tiananmen Square in Beijing. As mayor of Taiwan’s capital, Lien would provide Beijing not just a direct link to the KMT leadership, but also a strategic power base to counterbalance Ma and post-Ma leaders, and to affect Taiwan’s cross-strait policy as well. Thus this is a race for more than the mayoralty of Taipei.
To facilitate Lien’s electoral victory, Beijing tries also to manipulate the selection of the mayoral candidate of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) and the broader opposition camp. Beijing and pro-China media appear to have endorsed Ko Wen-je (柯文哲), a well-known physician and an independent candidate who leads most opinion polls, but has been accused of soliciting Beijing’s support during trips to China and of being Beijing’s “Manchurian candidate” (“Empowering women in politics,” Dec. 16, 2013, page 8).
At the same time, Beijing has cultivated links with the higher echelons of the DPP. Former premier and DPP chairman Frank Hsieh (謝長廷) was the most prominent DPP figure to visit China last year and Beijing has reportedly also sought a visit from former DPP chairperson and 2012 presidential candidate Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文).
To exert greater influence over the DPP, Beijing also seeks to influence the election of its party chairman in May.
It is no secret that Ma anxiously seeks to attend the APEC summit in Beijing in October and facilitate a historic meeting with Xi, hoping to extricate himself from deep political woes at home and salvage his presidency. Although cross-strait ties have improved dramatically, most Taiwan analysts think the trip is unlikely, as the two sides are still far apart on sovereignty and other key political issues.
However, on the other hand, Beijing has hinted that the “right” conditions must exist before the trip can materialize. Would Xi seize the opportunity to extract huge political concessions from Ma? What Xi wants most is Ma’s firm pledge to begin cross-strait political dialogue soon, as he indicated to Siew in Bali in October last year.
The dialogue on cross-strait political ties — concerning Taiwan’s future political status and international participation, confidence-building measures and a peace agreement — would be extremely complicated and time-consuming.
However, Xi seeks to set the train in motion while Ma is in office and create an irreversible, irrevocable framework to lock Taiwan into the “one China” cage that could not be undone even if the DPP were to return to power in 2016.
Can and will Ma make such concessions? No one knows yet. Mainland Affairs Council Minister Wang Yu-chi (王郁琦) may provide clues when he meets with China’s Taiwan Affairs Office Director Zhang Zhijun (張志軍) in Nanjing from tomorrow until Friday. They met briefly at the previous APEC meeting, but this time is to be their first substantive talk on the development of cross-strait relations. It is too early to say whether the Nanjing dialogue would become a preliminary meeting to prepare for a future Ma-Xi summit and at what political costs to Taiwan. Indeed, Beijing’s approach toward Taiwan has changed so much and so quickly that it seems to be catching observers in both Taiwan and abroad dangerously off-guard.
Parris Chang is a professor emeritus of political science at Penn State University and chief executive of the Taiwan Institute for Political, Economic and Strategic Studies.