Thursday, October 27, 2011

Recognising two Chinas first step to unification

PRESIDENT Ma Ying-jeou's announcement that Taiwan is prepared to sign a peace agreement with China within the next decade may have been made to enhance his chances for re-election in January but it was also a practical acknowledgement of political realities.

For one thing, China is becoming increasingly powerful and it is by no means clear how much longer the United States will be able to guarantee Taiwan's security. So, holding talks on a peace agreement when Washington is still willing to defend Taiwan is a smart thing to do.

Moreover, the discussion of sensitive political issues cannot be put off indefinitely. The two sides have signed 15 agreements on economic issues over the last three years.

But China has made it clear that it wants to move on to political issues. And since the easier issues have already been tackled, the more difficult -- and sensitive -- political issues will need to be faced.

The idea of a peace agreement is not new. In 2005, President Hu Jintao and then Kuomintang party chairman Lien Chan signed an agreement which called for pursuing "together the happiness of the people on both sides" and resuming "consultations on an equal footing", as well as the signing of a peace accord. There was no explicit mention of reunification as the goal.

And when Ma ran for the presidency in 2007, his campaign platform included economic cooperation with the mainland and eventual political discussions that would lead to a peace agreement.

By putting negotiations for a peace agreement on the agenda, Ma is taking the initiative. He is also subtly setting conditions that will be difficult for China to resist.

Thus, the Taiwan leader has said that no agreement would be signed unless it was endorsed by a referendum. By saying so publicly, Ma is making it impossible for Beijing to object to a referendum, which China had previously insisted was something that Taiwan could not do, since referendums can only be held by sovereign states.

Actually, ever since Taiwan became a democracy, it has been true that no government can possibly reach an agreement with Beijing on issues such as unification or independence without the approval of the electorate. Beijing is now forced to accept that as a reality.

Much will need to happen before there is a peace agreement, including putting in place measures to create mutual trust so as to avoid military conflict. Certainly, it will have to include the removal of Chinese missiles threatening Taiwan.

But if a peace agreement can be reached, it will mean the end of a decades-long problem that has brought the US and China to the brink of war.

It is not clear how future political talks would be held, what the contents of any agreement would be and -- if there is an agreement -- whether the signatories would be two political parties or two governments.

Presumably, Beijing would prefer an agreement between two ruling political parties. However, this would not be acceptable to Taiwan's opposition party or, indeed, to its public.

But if the agreement was between two governments, then Beijing would have to make the very difficult decision to abandon its current stance of not recognising the existence of the Republic of China on Taiwan. The Chinese position is that the government of the Republic of China, instead of having moved to Taiwan in 1949, simply ceased to exist when the People's Republic of China was established on the mainland.

For more than 60 years, Beijing has adamantly opposed the concept of "two Chinas" and insisted that no country could recognise both the governments in Taipei and in Beijing.

However, China recognised both East and West Germany before German reunification in 1990 and, currently, it has diplomatic relations with both North and South Korea. Why, one wonders, is it acceptable to have two Germanys and two Koreas but not two Chinas? After all, it is simply reality.

In fact, it is likely that recognition of the existence -- and legitimacy -- of the Republic of China will be a prerequisite for any political agreement with Taiwan. After all, no Taiwan government can agree that it does not exist, or is illegitimate.

Continued refusal to accept the existence of the Republic of China will remove any chance of a cross-straits agreement. Acceptance of this reality is the only way that may eventually lead to unification -- that is, if the two sovereign governments on opposite sides of the Taiwan Strait agree to it. By Frank Ching for The New Straits Times, Kuala Lumpur

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