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Beijing must be patient in dealing with Taiwan

From Wednesday's Globe and Mail

Since Ma Ying-jeou was inaugurated as president on May 20, 2008, tensions across the Taiwan Strait have subsided noticeably and, this week, a Taiwanese official is attending a World Health Assembly meeting in Geneva for the first time since 1971, when Beijing took over the China seat at the United Nations.

Taiwan's economic performance in the past year has been poor, largely because of the international environment. Instead of 6-per-cent growth, as Mr. Ma had promised, Taiwan is in the midst of a recession, with unemployment at a record 5.8 per cent.

Still, the President's support has gone up recently and, according to one poll, stands at a respectable 60 per cent. Nevertheless, weekend demonstrations in Taipei and Kaohsiung show that a large number of people are unhappy with him.

One reason is that, while hostility across the strait has declined, suspicion within Taiwan of the mainland's intentions has not. And these suspicions have been directed at the Ma administration because it has signed nine agreements with Beijing in the 12 months since Mr. Ma assumed office. This is a breathtaking pace and many people fear the accords have been reached by sacrificing Taiwan's sovereignty.

The business community, though, is supportive of the government. For one thing, direct cross-strait passenger flights, cargo flights, shipping and so forth greatly reduce the cost of doing business with the mainland. An accord to allow investment from the mainland should also stimulate the Taiwan economy.

If China continues to help Taiwan increase its international space in the coming months without appearing to exact a political price, hostility toward Beijing should drop, along with suspicions of the Ma government.

But this may be difficult to do. Mr. Ma has made it clear that he wants to tackle only economic, not political, issues in his first term. Even in a second term, while such issues as a peace agreement can be discussed, no negotiations would be held on political unification with the mainland as long as he is President.

That reflects a realistic assessment of the domestic situation in Taiwan. The mainland should also be satisfied. It is simply inconceivable that the majority of people in Taiwan would be ready for reunification with the mainland in the next four or eight years.

The mainland has a lot of work to do beforehand, in terms of reducing the military threat against Taiwan and in terms of political reforms. This will probably take decades, not years.

It is good that Beijing has indicated it is willing to sign an economic co-operation framework agreement with Taiwan, but that is only the first step. Taiwan hopes that such an agreement will lead to similar accords with other countries in the region, thus avoiding its economic isolation.

But it was troubling that the director of the mainland's Taiwan Affairs Office, Wang Yi, while agreeing on the need to build mutual trust in order to resolve long-standing issues, told Chiang Pin-kung, chairman of Taiwan's Straits Exchange Foundation, last month that political and military issues cannot be sidestepped in favour of purely economic co-operation.

That is a danger sign. The mainland should not try to induce Taiwan to tackle political or military issues at this stage, although there are things that Beijing can do unilaterally, such as removing the more than 1,000 missiles along the coast that it has pointed at Taiwan. That would win Beijing profound goodwill on the island.

The main point is this: Beijing needs infinite patience when dealing with Taiwan. The current suspicion is the outcome of six decades of threats, blackmail, military pressure and diplomatic isolation. Even though building mutual trust is the responsibility of both sides, first and foremost it requires efforts by Beijing.

Frank Ching is author of China: The Truth About Its Human Rights Record.

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