Taiwan reconfirms equality, democracy
Tsai Ing-wen has been formally inaugurated as the new president of Taiwan. She is the first woman to hold this top government position, a milestone of tremendous importance.
This also brings political complications with mainland China. The new governing party, the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), is formally committed to independence from China.
Beijing has stridently demanded that Tsai publicly acknowledge that Taiwan is part of China. She has not publicly confirmed the established public reference to “one China.”
Current assertiveness of China in maritime and military terms adds teeth to the rhetoric. Beijing has already reduced — but not terminated — trade and tourism.
Nonetheless, these tensions likely will be mitigated short of armed conflict. The earlier DPP government from 2000 to 2008 was able to finesse the political challenges with Beijing. Today, economic concerns are more important than ideological for the communist great power.
On May 25, the Taipei Economic and Cultural Office (TECO) in Chicago hosted a small seminar to review and discuss Tsai’s inaugural address. There was general agreement she had effectively described, and explicitly endorsed, the framework of cooperation initiated by Beijing and Taipei in 1992. One seminar participant suggested emphasizing the Chinese people globally, a primary source of overseas investment.
Doors for women at the top are opening, and opening as well in China-Taiwan cooperation. On Feb. 11, 2014, representatives of the island and the mainland agreed to exchange representative offices. Face-to-face negotiations were led by Vice Foreign Minister Zhang Zhijun of China, head of the Taiwan Affairs Office, and Taiwan Mainland Affairs Minister Wang Yu-chi.
The two sides share a bitter legacy of battle and blood. In 1949, Nationalist forces of Gen. Chiang Kai-shek evacuated to Taiwan. Mao Zedong’s armies controlled the mainland of China. Except for the island territory, communist revolution was complete.
The Korean War of 1950-1953 made the Cold War global, with China and the United States direct combatants. U.S. commitment to Taiwan security became explicit.
The foundation of cooperation has been built steadily over time. Pragmatism characterizes Taiwan’s approach to mainland China. Following formal U.S. diplomatic recognition of Beijing in 1978, a consequence of President Richard Nixon’s 1972 visit, Taipei immediately launched a comprehensive essentially non-confrontational strategic response.
In November 2008, agreement was reached on far-reaching trade accords, including direct shipping, expansion of weekly passenger flights from 36 to 108, and introduction of up to 60 cargo flights per month.
In 2010, the bilateral Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement (ECFA) was concluded. This has been a major triumph for previous President Ma Ying-jeou. His election as chief executive in 2008 and 2012 greatly furthered rapprochement with Beijing.
Taiwan has become essential investor for the enormous industrial revolution taking place on the mainland. Commercially successful, generally well-educated overseas Chinese in turn are a vital source of capital for the mainland. Expatriate Chinese also vote in Taiwan elections.
The ECFA framework is now so strong that a return to earlier hostility across the Taiwan Strait is unlikely. Ironically, the conservative Kuomintang (KMT) has been more comfortable than the liberal DPP with practical pragmatic cooperation with Beijing. Yet, as indicated, in power earlier the DPP continued mainland cooperation, muted formal commitment to declaring independence from China and conformed to the new realities.
The female leader at the pinnacle of Taiwan politics symbolizes equality, fairness and progress. Open competitive markets undercut unfair rigidities of tradition and ideology. Taiwan over three decades has effectively embraced representative democracy.
Arthur I. Cyr is Clausen Distinguished Professor at Carthage College and author of “After the Cold War.”