Reaping Cross-Strait Peace Dividend
It’s a hinge moment in the history of cross-strait relations, a moment that comes but rarely when we emerge out of the old to the new, to adapt a memorable expression used by India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru. The Taiwan strait, once feared as a potential flashpoint, is now morphing into a gateway not only for lasting reconciliation between Taiwan and mainland China, but also a conduit for regional peace and prosperity. The last two years, since President Ma Ying-jeou of Kuomintang came to power in May 2008, have been nothing short of dramatic and transformational, awakening a new hope for a new Asia as the two sides brace to sign a landmark economic cooperation agreement.
Since Ma announced “diplomatic truce” in the summer of 2008, the cross-strait relations has seen a surge straddling virtually all areas. Reconciliation through a web of trade, tourism and popular contacts has become the new mantra. Bilateral trade has multiplied over 10 times to $130 billion, up from $8 billion in 1991, making China Taiwan’s largest trading partner. Taiwanese companies have put more than $200 billion into 80,000 investment projects in China. There are now 270 direct flights between the island and the mainland every week. At any given time, there are about one million Taiwanese people, or 4 per cent of its population, working, traveling or studying in China. More Chinese tourists are coming to Taiwan too, after Taipei increased its daily quota of visitors from China to 3,000.
In other words, what appeared unthinkable years ago has now become a living reality, underscoring the power of transformational diplomacy in today’s conflict-ridden world. But such seismic changes do not happen without the force of a big
idea. In this case, it was President Ma’s vision of win-win cross-strait relations, pivoted around flexible diplomacy and a discreet use of soft power. Pragmatism is in replacing ideology and narrow nationalism.
Fully aware of the shifting global architecture and the rise of China as a major player on the international scene, Taiwan, the world’s 17th largest economy, has adopted a calibrated practical approach towards international relations, focussing its energies on making a difference to the world through “meaningful participation” in UN activities. Taipei, to start with, has been invited by World Health Organisation to participate as an observer in the World Health Assembly meeting for 2 consecutive years. It is now aiming at joining as an observer at two other UN agencies: the International Civil Aviation Organisation and the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). In this quest, Taiwan has found a fair measure of support from the international community.
The global meltdown did not leave the Taiwanese economy intact, but Taipei has been relatively quick to bounce back, and is sharing its prosperity by redirecting resources that previously have been wasted on counterproductive competition between Taiwan and mainland China in the diplomatic arena. Everywhere President Ma went for state visits, he reinforced a clear message that Taiwan’s foreign aid was meant only for legitimate goals and embodied the principle of effective cooperation for sustainable development.
This cooperative, consensual approach has been in fact a signature tune of President Ma. In January, Taiwan was the first foreign country to send a team to aid the quake-hit Haiti, one of the 23 countries that still recognise Taiwan diplomatically. China also sent a team later, but Taipei did not mind. On the contrary, President Ma quickly pledged $5 million for the Latin American country. He even personally delivered 10 tonnes of medical and other supplies to Haitian Prime Minister Jean-Max Bellerive.
The cross-strait thaw is, therefore, a major opportunity for creating a new dialectic of peace and harmony not only in Asia but in the world. Not all issues have been resolved between Taiwan and mainland China, most important being hundreds of Chinese missiles that continued to be pointed at Taiwanese cities. But the peace dividend has surpassed the remaining sources of friction. And the world is increasingly seeing it that way.
In India, too, the prospects of the new situation have not gone unnoticed even as it tries to improve its relations with mainland China. The growing strength of Indian economy and its leadership role in the G20 process has enthused Taiwanese investors who are keen to tap emerging opportunities in two-way trade and investment. Buoyed by their mutual strengths, the two sides have set a target of nearly doubling their bilateral trade to $10 billion by 2015. Direct investment of some US$ 1 billion by 70 Taiwanese companies, including Acer and HTC, is expected to grow substantially in the next few years. Taiwan is also opening its universities to woo Indian students at very competitive conditions.
And what is more heartening is that Taiwan is navigating this new turn in its relations with mainland China without compromising on its character. In his speech entitled “The Quest for Modernity”, President Ma said recently that a society is truly modernising should not be limited to wealth and power but must also include the foundations for freedom and democracy. He continued by saying Taiwan “has in fact achieved all these three pillars.”
Bolstered by the ongoing cross-strait rapprochement, President Ma has spoken eloquently about creating a “golden decade” for Taiwan and it seems close to reality. In its most recent World Economic Outlook report, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) forecasts that Taiwan’s GDP will grow by 3.7 per cent in 2010, ranking it second among the four Asian Tiger economies. When Taiwan and mainland China will sign the path-breaking Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement (ECFA) later this year, the world will be watching closely, and will be hopefully seeing in it a chance for extending the web of peace and prosperity that is underpinning an increasingly interconnected world. Asia’s moment under the global sun is finally here, and improving cross-strait relations can only spur the ongoing Asian resurgence.
By Wenchyi Ong
The author is Director General of Taipei Economic & Cultural Center, New Delhi