Hands Across The Taiwan Strait But How Far?

Only a few weeks ago, relations between Taiwan and China seemed to be deteriorating quickly. After the suspicious deaths of 24 Taiwanese near Shanghai, tour groups boycotted China and politicians denounced Beijing. In one gesture of defiance, Taipei refused during a July typhoon to allow 900 Chinese fishermen working illegally on Taiwanese ships to come in off the high seas. Ten of them subsequently died.

But helping to change that climate was an August visit to Taipei by Tang Shubei, vice-chairman for Beijing's quasi-official Association for Relations Across the Taiwan Strait. Tang and his Taiwanese counterpart, Chiao Jen-ho, wrapped up agreements on illegal Chinese immigrants, repatriation of hijackers, and fishing rights. These first significant deals since 1949 signal a new era in cross-strait relations.

TOWARD NORMALCY. Taiwan's strategy is to get Beijing to treat it like an equal. China has long threatened to invade if Taiwan declares formal independence. Yet by signing the new accords, the Chinese have tacitly admitted that Taipei is a separate government. "The more high-level the negotiations between the two sides, the more separate their identities become as two individual nations," says K.S. Chiu, professor at National Chungchi University in Taipei.

To be sure, some of the biggest issues have yet to be addressed: Taiwanese want investment guarantees to protect the $18 billion they have put into China, while Beijing covets direct transportation links with Taiwan. While neither side is ready to yield quickly, the trend toward normalization of relations is likely to continue. They are being pushed by growing economic ties, including bilateral trade estimated at $3.7 billion through May of this year, up 9% over 1993. "A symbiotic economic relationship is inevitable," says C.J. Lee, director of the Mainland China Economy Institute in Taipei.

But don't look for Taipei to embrace Beijing enthusiastically. With local elections slated for later this year and with President Lee Teng-hui scheduled to be tested in 1996, the ruling Kuomintang doesn't want to alienate voters deeply suspicious of Beijing. Such feelings led to violent protests over the Chinese negotiator's presence. As it moves closer to China, the KMT will, therefore, continue to guard its independence by pressing for admission to the U.N. and building international alliances.

Renewed U.S. interest in Taiwan may make it easier for the two Chinas to reach an understanding. The Clinton Administration is reviewing policy toward Taiwan and could soon allow Cabinet-level exchanges and other symbolic gestures. By giving Taipei a sense of security, these moves could allow it to take more chances bargaining with Beijing.

That's what Taiwan's business community wants. Executives, who must now travel to China through Hong Kong or another third country, want direct transportation links as much as Beijing does. Government-run Taiwanese enterprises want an end to the ban on state-sector investment in China. Despite predictions that Taiwanese ardor for China would cool, many of the island's biggest companies see success there as the key to their global competitiveness.

More talks are scheduled for next month. With elections four months off, Taiwan will likely want to bide its time. But the new spirit of cooperation has already helped hundreds of illegal Chinese fishermen sleep easily: During Tang's visit, another typhoon slammed the island--but this time, Taipei allowed the Chinese into port away from the storm.

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