Taiwan, China to open negotiations today Discussions in Shanghai will be highest-level talks since war ended in 1949

October 14, 1998|By Frank Langfitt | Frank Langfitt,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

BEIJING -- As the round, smiling face of Mao Tse-tung stares out from a poster on a dorm room wall at People's University, students speak simply about what would happen if Taiwan ever declared independence from mainland China.

War. No less.

Never mind that most analysts say China is many years away from being able to mount a successful invasion of the heavily fortified island, which acts as an independent state but is treated by China as a renegade province.

When it comes to Taiwan, passions run deep.

"Taiwan cannot be independent, every university student thinks this," says a 20-year-old international politics major who gave only his surname, Shen. "I would join the army if the nation needed me."

Today, for the first time in five years, representatives from both sides will begin talks aimed at resolving the dispute between Taiwan and China that has dragged on for nearly half a century. Although no major breakthroughs are expected, the fact that officials are talking face to face -- instead of hurling insults or missiles in each other's direction -- is a welcome sign.

"The talks are helpful because they help to defuse a difficult relationship, and provide a channel of communication," says Robert S. Ross, a professor of political science at Boston College. "But they will not alter the fundamentals of the conflict."

Since the Nationalists fled to Taiwan in 1949 after their defeat by Mao's Communist forces, China has insisted that the island eventually return to the fold.

Taiwan, a prosperous democracy of 22 million people 115 miles off the coast, increasingly sees itself as having a separate identity. Leaders in Taipei say it could reunify far in the future when the mainland has a developed economy and an open political system.

The Taiwan Strait -- along with the Korean Peninsula -- remains one of most worrisome spots in Asia. China conducted intimidating missile tests in the area on the eve of Taiwan's national elections in 1996, and the potential for the United States to become embroiled in the fight over Taiwan was clear when a U.S. carrier force moved into the region.

So Washington can only be pleased that talk of war is turning to talk of improved relations.

Taiwan's representative, Koo Chen-fu, will meet with his mainland counterpart, Wang Daohan, beginning today in Shanghai. No set agenda exists for the meeting. On Sunday, Koo will meet Chinese President Jiang Zemin in Beijing for what will be the highest-level contact between the two sides since China's civil war ended in 1949.

Beijing analysts say talks could touch on the possibility of officially ending hostilities between the Republic of China -- as Taiwan calls itself -- and the People's Republic of China.

Discussions also could focus on removing obstacles for direct air, shipping, mail and communications links between Taiwan and the mainland. Overall, though, observers expect the two sides to agree just to keep talking.

"One should not be overly optimistic," says Xu Shiquan, head of the Institute of Taiwan Studies at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences in Beijing. "This is only a resumption of contacts."

The two sides have decided to start talking again for a variety of reasons.

With national legislative elections this year and another presidential race in 2000, Taiwan's ruling Kuomintang needs to show voters that it is doing a better job managing relations with its huge neighbor. China, for its part, is worried about the rising popularity of Taiwan's pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party, which last year outpolled the Kuomintang in local elections for the first time.

Closer ties between China and the United States also have played a pivotal role, emboldening the mainland and encouraging Taiwan to return to the table.

During his visit here in June, President Clinton said he did not support Taiwanese independence, "two Chinas" or the island's membership in international organizations requiring sovereignty. Analysts say improved U.S. relations made leaders in Beijing more confident in pursuing talks with Taiwan. American officials pushed Taiwan to do the same.

"The cross-strait talks were renewed, in part, to take some of Washington's informally applied pressure off and to convince Washington that Taiwan will not get the United States into a quagmire of conflict in the Taiwan Strait," says David M. Lampton, director of Chinese studies at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies.

With the successful handover of Hong Kong by Britain last year )) and the planned return of the Portuguese colony of Macau next year, leaders in Beijing see Taiwan as the final puzzle piece that ++ would unify China after centuries.

To lure Taiwan back, China is offering a deal similar to -- but better than -- the one it gave Hong Kong, dubbed "one country, two systems." Under the proposal, Taiwan could continue to be democratic and even keep its army. It would, however, have to give up sovereignty and its foreign policy.

Beijing hopes that growing economic ties will help draw Taiwan into the fold. Even Taiwanese and U.S. business leaders in Taipei have criticized the barriers the government maintains against direct contacts across the strait.

Taiwan, however, has rejected the "one country, two systems" plan. It wants to put off reunification talks as long as possible, preferring to discuss other issues.

With a per capita gross domestic product many times higher than China's and a freewheeling democracy, Taiwan has little incentive to submit to Beijing's authority and risk losing its new political freedoms.

While national polls show a growing number of Taiwanese support independence, the vast majority still say they prefer the status quo.

"The main concern currently is about civil rights and civil liberties," says Tse-kang Leng, an associate research fellow at the Institute of International Relations at Chengchi University in Taipei.

Pub Date: 10/14/98

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