When Mainland Affairs Council Minister Wang Yu-chi (王郁琦) met Taiwan Affairs Office (TAO) Minister Zhang Zhijun (張志軍) in Nanjing, China, on Tuesday, they addressed each other using their formal titles. This direct meeting between the two official authorities in charge of cross-strait relations has taken the relationship to the next level, moving past the old formula of having all contacts channeled through the semi-official Straits Exchange Foundation (SEF) and the Association for Relations Across the Taiwan Straits (ARATS). While this represented a breakthrough, it would be prudent not to draw any far-reaching conclusions because of the vast difference that exists between the two sides in terms of interests, values, politics and economics.
Prior to Wang’s departure, the legislature adopted a resolution stipulating that he should not discuss political issues or issue a joint statement with Zhang. This meant that there should be no closing consensus and that any conclusions should be the individual interpretation of each side. Apart from the significance of the formal procedure itself then, the meeting did not bring any major constructive advances.
With Taiwan wanting to join the Trans-Pacific Partnership and the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership and China wanting to complete the follow-up talks to the Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement (ECFA), chances are the two sides were talking past each other. China wants Taiwan safely within the “one China” framework before deciding whether it is willing to let it join any other economic organizations.
On the eve of the meeting, there was much talk about the possibility of an agreement on allowing Chinese students in Taiwan to join Taiwan’s health insurance system and Taiwanese students in China to enjoy Chinese medical insurance, as well as humanitarian visitation rights in China for Taiwanese. However, the two sides reached no decision on these issues and only agreed to work to find solutions. It is clear that the two sides are still measuring each other up and have no intention of making any substantive decisions. Wang may have wanted to come back with some kind of achievement in his bag, but the Chinese side was not willing to offer it to him.
In light of the legislative resolution, it was TAO that brought up political issues in the post-meeting press conference. By not responding to these statements and thus allowing China to score a point, Wang failed to fulfill his ministerial duties.
There was speculation that the Wang-Zhang meeting was an excuse to pave the way for a meeting between President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) and Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平) later this year, but it was not mentioned at the press conferences, making it difficult to guess whether the issue was ignored or if it was broached and the two decided not to announce it.
The Ma administration’s attitude prior to the meeting seemed to imply that it would go to any length to bring about a meeting between the president and his Chinese counterpart. These include its willingness to amend the senior-high school history course outline, the Control Yuan’s censure of the Cabinet for not using the nation’s official title and the Ministry of Education’s statement that Nanjing is the capital of the Republic of China — all of which were intended to pander to China. There is little possibility that Wang and Zhang did not discuss a Ma-Xi meeting, but since the time is not ripe, they tried to avoid a public backlash by keeping any such discussions under wraps.
In the future, all they need do is pick up their cellphones and call each other to discuss the conditions for a Ma-Xi meeting and, if necessary, offer a few concessions. This is the real nightmare that the legislature, the opposition and the public must do anything they can to avoid.