Losing track of all the Asian countries feuding? With China, Japan, the Philippines and others calling one another Hitler and Lord Voldemort, it’s reasonable to worry that diplomats have lost the plot in the region. The good news is that, even as some of the conflicts drag on, two of the worst disputes are showing signs of thaws. Across the DMZ dividing North Korea and South Korea and the Taiwan Strait separating Taiwan from mainland China, antagonists in two of Asia’s most explosive conflicts are talking to one another.
The meeting between officials from China and Taiwan could have the most lasting consequences. On Monday and Tuesday, cabinet members from Beijing and Taipei got together in Nanjing, the eastern city that was the capital of the Republic of China before Chiang Kai-shek’s forces lost the Chinese Civil War to Mao Zedong and decamped to Taiwan, still officially known as the Republic of China.
The Nanjing summit, between Taiwan’s Mainland Affairs Minister Wang Yu-chi and his Chinese counterpart Zhang Zhijun, was the first meeting of officials since 1949. “This is a step forward in Beijing recognizing the reality of Taiwan’s international status,” Daniel Blumenthal, director of Asian Studies at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, told Bloomberg News.
Until now, the two sides have largely limited exchanges to the quasi-public foundations established specifically to allow government officials to maintain arms-length distance from one another. Taiwan has the Straits Exchange Foundation and China has the Association for Relations Across the Taiwan Straits (ARATS).
The two were especially important when Taiwan was ruled by the independence-minded Democratic Progressive Party and Beijing’s Communist leaders wanted nothing to do with the island’s top elected officials. Even when the DPP was out of power, China’s state-controlled media would refer to elected officials from the island with scare quotes: Taiwan didn’t have a president, for instance, it had a “president.”
Now, Taiwan’s president is Ma Ying-jeou from the Kuomintang, which to China’s relief doesn’t officially advocate the creation of an independent Republic of Taiwan. Ma isn’t very popular, though, and China is doing its best to help him by showing Taiwanese voters how much better relations with the mainland can be under the KMT. In December, the head of ARATS, Chen Deming, made a week-long trip to Taiwan, his first visit to the island.
That itself was a breakthrough, a sign of China’s intention to promote a thaw with Taiwan even as ties with Japan and the Philippines deteriorated. The meeting in Nanjing shows the two sides making even more progress. “We absolutely can’t let the relations between the two sides be turbulent again, and even more, we can’t backtrack,” Zhang Zhijun, China’s top official for Taiwan relations, said in Nanjing.
Significantly, Zhang referred to his Taiwanese counterpart by his formal title. Maybe Chinese editors can finally give up on the scare quotes.