Hands Across the Taiwan Strait

April 30, 1993

China and the United States broke the diplomatic ice over a ping pong table. China and Taiwan accomplished the same thing this week over a conference table in Singapore.

The result in the foreseeable future will be the same: closer working relationships between the communist rulers on the mainland and the remnants of its Kuomintang predecessor. Perhaps in time the "two Chinas" will be more or less reunited. Each denies that there are "two Chinas," and each agrees that Taiwan is Chinese. The dispute is over who rules them, and as the generations that fought each other in the '30s and '40s die off, that will become a pragmatic issue rather than the ideological and emotional one it is now.

Actually China and Taiwan (which calls itself the Republic of China, as contrasted with the People's Republic of China on the mainland) have had indirect contacts for some time.

Taiwanese businessmen have invested some $7 billion in mainland enterprises through dummy companies elsewhere, usually Hong Kong. The Chinese Red Cross signed an agreement in 1990 on repatriation of illegal immigrants from Taiwan -- which some politicians on the island claim has not been fulfilled. Now the two regimes are dealing a little more directly, through quasi-official organizations that represent the highest-level contact they have had since the communists took over in 1949.

The start has been a modest one and represents the beginning of a diplomatic dance that will probably last for quite a while. The agreements signed in Singapore deal with nuts and bolts issues like direct postal services and copyright protection. But the regime in Beijing, now a full-fledged member of the international community, no longer feels the need to hide its opening contacts with Taiwan, as it did, for example, with the U.S.

Perhaps the most significant thing that happened in Singapore was something that did not happen. The negotiators could not agree on Taiwan's demand for stronger legal protections for its investments on the mainland. The issue was important enough to extend the talks an extra day. Still they could not agree. So they put the issue aside with an inconclusive reference in one of the documents they signed. Rather than lash out, as the Chinese have done periodically with the British over the future of Hong Kong, the Beijing delegation kept its eye on the main goal.

The lesson here is that both sides want the budding relationship to flourish because it is in their own interests. As the interests of Taiwan and China continue to converge, the hostile relationship across the Taiwan Strait will dissolve into wary but increasingly political arrangements.

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