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All talk and no action good for China-Taiwan relations

By Rebecca MacKinnon
CNN Beijing Bureau Chief

In this story: April 24, 1998
Web posted at: 11:41 a.m. EDT (1141 GMT)
Mackinnon

BEIJING (CNN) -- Holding talks about talks may not seem like much. But if you look at where China and Taiwan have been over the last three years, the fact they are talking at all begins to look like a major step forward.

Negotiators from China and Taiwan met in Beijing on Thursday for the first time in nearly three years. They agreed that the two sides will hold a set of higher-level talks at some point later this year, although they are far from agreeing on an agenda. That will require more talking still.

The goal is to bring Koo Cheng-foo, of Taiwan's Straits Exchange Foundation, to Beijing this year to meet with Wang Daohan, of China's Association for Relations Across the Taiwan Strait.

These two men head the semi-official organizations that handle all communications between China and Taiwan. They last met in Singapore in 1993 in the highest-level contact between the two sides to date. The two sides continued talking on a more junior level into 1995.

Beijing, which considers Taiwan to be a renegade province, had hoped those talks would eventually lead to the return of the island to mainland Chinese rule.

Legacy of tension surrounds the island

handshake

Chinese President Jiang Zemin envisioned reunification to work much like Hong Kong's return to Chinese rule last year -- Taiwan would be allowed a "high degree of autonomy" under what is called the "one country, two systems" framework.

Since the 1970s, when most of the international community switched its recognition from the Nationalist leadership in Taipei to Communists in Beijing as the sovereign government of China, Taiwan's diplomatic isolation has grown, even as it gained new status as an economic power.

When Taiwan democratized in the early 1990s, internal political pressures grew for the island to gain the international recognition that most Taiwanese felt it deserved.

A growing number of politicians began to suggest that Taiwan, a major Asian economic powerhouse, ought to be given a parallel level of international respect. They felt it was unfair they could not make state visits to all but a dwindling handful of countries that still recognized Taiwan.

Thus Taiwanese President Lee Teng-hui and his ruling Nationalist party began aggressively to seek a more active role for Taiwan on the international stage. But this came at the expense of the lines of communication which Taipei and Beijing had been building so carefully.

Those lines snapped completely in 1995, when Lee took a private trip to the United States to receive an honorary degree at his alma mater, Cornell University. That sent Beijing's relations with Taipei and Washington -- which issued Lee's visa over Chinese objections -- into a tailspin.

Things grew so tense that by the following spring, China held several rounds of military exercises in the Taiwan straits, and the United States sent aircraft carriers into the area as a warning, lest Beijing take things too far.

Washington's influence sought by both sides

Clinton and Jiang

Some diplomatic observers suggest the new thaw between Beijing and Taipei is due largely to the recent warming of Beijing's relationship with Washington.

When Jiang visited U.S. President Bill Clinton in Washington last fall, he received Clinton's oral commitment that Washington stands behind its "one China" policy, and that the United States will encourage Beijing and Taipei to restart a dialogue "sooner rather than later."

At the same time, Chinese leaders in Beijing have watched with alarm as Taiwan's people have voted in a growing number of politicians who want to go beyond Lee's efforts at "greater living space" for the island.

These Taiwanese politicians think the island should "declare independence" and reject all future plans to reunify with China. One U.S. think tank has predicted that if the trend holds, the Taiwanese could elect a pro-independence president by early next century.

Beijing hopes Washington will help to discourage that trend. China reserves the right to use force against Taiwan if it declares independence. And Chinese government officials believe that Taiwan's politicians and people will be less likely to think about it if they know they cannot count on U.S. backing.

Washington, for its part, does not want to be faced with a military confrontation between China and Taiwan.

Thus, Chinese analysts say, Taipei's incentive to restart talks is directly linked to the fact that Beijing and Washington are becoming friendlier.

Perhaps no real choice but to keep talking

There is still much to be done before Beijing and Taipei can start discussing anything of substance.

The next step comes in June, when Clinton is to visit China. Chinese government advisers say that from Beijing's view, the Taiwan issue is the most important component of U.S.-China relations.

Jiang, they say, would ideally like Clinton to sign a written agreement that commits the United States to support Taiwan's eventual reunification with mainland China. And while these policy makers say they know that is unlikely, they hope Clinton will at least reassure Jiang that Washington will discourage any new moves by Taipei toward independence.

If that happens, China figures Taiwan will have no choice but to keep talking. But in fact, from Beijing's and Taiwan's perspective alike, the fact that both sides are just talking may be good enough for now.

 
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