An historic round of talks began in Nanjing, China yesterday as ministers from both Taiwan and the People’s Republic of China came together in their official capacities for the first time in 65 years to discuss the opening of a communication channel for further engagement in the future. Zhang Zhijun, head of the PRC’s State Council Taiwan Affairs Office, and Wang Yu-chi, head of Taiwan’s Mainland Affairs Council, who first met on the sidelines of the informal Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) economic leaders’ meeting in Bali, Indonesia last October, agreed to move forward with talks in their official capacities at the summit.
Though the two sides of the Taiwan Strait have refrained from engaging each other in any official capacity since the end of the Chinese Civil War and the exile of the Kuomintang political party to Taiwan, they have long maintained informal contact through the mainland-based Association for Relations Across the Taiwan Strait (ARATS) and the Taiwanese counterpart Straits Exchange Foundation (SEF). Indeed the highly controversial 2010 Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement (ECFA) and the subsequent Cross-Strait Service Trade Agreement, both of which opened up further links between the economy of the mainland and Taiwan, were both negotiated through the ARATS-SEF channel rather than official government-to-government contact.
The meeting that occurred in Nanjing, though certainly historic in its symbolism, was not expected to bring with it much tangible rapprochement between the two opposing sides. Indeed, it is unlikely that China, with its ever-growing influence over the Asia Pacific region, will back down from its stated foreign policy objective with reunification with Taiwan. For his part, Wang was barred by both sides of the Taiwanese Legislative Yuan from touching on any politically-sensitive subjects, or even signing any documents, during his visit to Nanjing. The rumored possibility of a possible meeting of PRC president Xi Jinping and Taiwanese president Ma Ying-jeou was not even brought to the table during the discussion.
While not much has actually changed as the talks draw to a close, the larger symbolism and what it means for the balance of power in the Asia Pacific region should not be lost. China’s earlier demarcation of its Aerial Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) and its continuing territorial disputes in the South China Sea clearly demonstrate China’s intention to command a larger influence over the East Asian region. Though the combat-readiness of China’s military is certainly questionable after a series of high-level embarassments, in this case it seems that China’s forward-thinking foreign policy will make the use of such recourse unnecessary. As talks continue to go forward between the PRC and the ROC, the question of the status of Taiwan within the larger context of China’s growing influence may become even more ambiguous.