Taiwan leaders walk tightrope in closer relations with Beijing

Links with mainland China have provoked a swell of popular anti-Beijing feeling

The “respected Mr Vincent Siew” was how China’s president addressed Taiwan’s representative at this month’s Apec summit in Beijing.

For many in Taiwan, this was not only a gross breech of protocol but an insult. By stripping Mr Siew of his official title as head of Taiwan's Chinese Taipei delegation, Beijing had "belittled" the island's sovereign status.

China makes no secret of its claim over Taiwan and maintains a credible threat to invade should Taipei seek further independence. Beijing officials followed up their diplomatic downgrading of Mr Siew by not inviting him to an informal breakfast meeting of foreign ministers, one of the showpiece events of the summit.

Taiwan’s main opposition party, which takes a tougher line on cross-strait relations with Beijing, berated the government for taking these “inappropriate treatments” lying down and for not making a formal complaint.


All told, it was a difficult summit for the Taiwanese government, which has been pursuing a policy of rapprochement with mainland China, while trying to contain anti-Beijing sentiment at home.

Taiwan in a bind

With China growing ever more aggressive in its dealings with neighbours, Taiwan finds itself between the proverbial rock and hard place. It is desperate not to be marginalised in the move towards greater free trade in the region, which it needs Beijing to underwrite, and increasingly wary of where these closer ties will lead.

The current protests in Hong Kong are being closely monitored across Taiwan, with many believing the outcome will have significant implications for its future relations with the mainland.

At a recent anti-Beijing protest in Taipei, one of the most commonly chanted slogans was “today’s Hong Kong, tomorrow’s Taiwan”.

Taiwan broke away from China in 1949 in the aftermath of the country’s civil war, when defeated nationalist forces fled the mainland and established a rival government in Taipei. To this day, it still calls itself “the Republic of China” and nominally claims mainland China as its own, though it does not press this claim.

Since its election in 2008, Taiwan’s ruling KMT party, under president Ma Ying-jeou, has pursued closer co-operation with Beijing in order to ease political tensions and develop trading relations, seen as crucial to the future prosperity of Taiwan’s export-dependent high-tech economy.

However, rapprochement has come at a price. Many Taiwanese fear the process is part of a long-term scheme to steer the island towards eventual reunification with the mainland. This issue erupted earlier in the year with the signing of a free-trade agreement for services between Taipei and Beijing that sparked demonstrations across Taiwan, led by the so-called Sunflower Movement, a coalition of student and civic groups.

Protesters claimed that the agreement, hatched under the governments’ ongoing Economic Co-operation Framework Agreement, would lead to the island being flooded by cheap mainland goods. Some also fear that the island’s de-facto independence might wither as it becomes dependent on the mainland for trade.

President Ma is adamant that the process is necessary to expand Taiwan’s trade relations with the wider region, but he has pledged to be more transparent about its dealings with Beijing. Nonetheless, the controversial services agreement remains to be signed into law, much to the annoyance of Beijing, which wants to push on with further co-operation.

Risk of fresh protests

Several commentators believe the government risks sparking fresh protests should it use a simple majority in the legislature to pass the deal without opposition support.

From talking with government officials and think tanks, the Taiwan authorities appear to view greater integration with the regional economy as paramount to the island’s future economic success.

Its closer co-operation with Beijing is being forged under the 1992 consensus of “one China with respective interpretations”, a diplomatic fudge that allows both sides to see themselves as the real China for negotiating purposes.

Vice minister for foreign affairs Vanessa Shih told The Irish Times that the Taiwanese government remained committed to maintaining the cross-strait status quo of "no unification, no independence and no use of force".

She said it was “imperative” for the further liberalisation of Taiwan’s economy that it joins the two regional free-trade associations – the Trans-Pacific Partnership and the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, which Beijing has blocked until now.

All of this could be frustrated, however, if Taiwan’s opposition DPP party gets into office in 2016, as the polls suggest it will. The question is whether growing separatist sentiment in Taiwan will trump its need for closer economic ties with regional players and, of course, how China will react.

Eoin Burke-Kennedy

Eoin Burke-Kennedy

Eoin Burke-Kennedy is Economics Correspondent of The Irish Times