ASIA NEWS NETWORK
WE KNOW ASIA BETTER
China relaxing Taiwan stance?
Publication Date : 20-03-2013
When Pope Francis was inaugurated at St Peter's Square in Rome yesterday, one of the foreign dignitaries watching from the front row was Taiwan's President Ma Ying-jeou.
It was Ma's first official visit to the Vatican as head of the Republic of China (ROC). He later scored another diplomatic first when he became the first Taiwanese leader to meet the pontiff.
Ma's rare appearance on the world stage came just days after Chinese President Xi Jinping formally took power last Thursday.
Beijing made the obligatory objection to his visit to Taiwan's only diplomatic ally in Europe.
Foreign ministry spokesman Hua Chunying last Friday urged caution in handling "sensitive issues", but Beijing's reaction is considered more muted compared to its protest of the 2005 Vatican visit by then Taiwan President Chen Shui-bian.
Analysts believe the mild response signals that ties between China and Taiwan, which have grown quickly since Ma was elected in 2008, will stay the course now that Xi is at the helm.
"For sure, Beijing has been more relaxed this time. It's the fruit of the development of cross- strait relations," said Professor Chang Ya-chung of the National Taiwan University.
Others noted that Xi probably did not want to rock the boat. They also said the Communist Party chief, who cut his political teeth in Fujian and Zhejiang, coastal provinces closest to Taiwan and thriving with Taiwanese businesses, knows the island better than his predecessors and hence, also knows which buttons to push.
"Xi has just taken over. He probably wants to stabilise internal affairs first before turning to external ones. He also wouldn't want to sour ties with Taiwan," said Taipei-based analyst Shih Cheng-feng.
Former Taiwanese deputy defence minister Lin Chong-pin said: "Xi knows the most important thing is to win the hearts of the Taiwanese, and he will take the opportunity when it presents itself."
Surveys consistently show 70 per cent of Taiwanese supporting the status quo of de facto independence and wanting Taiwan to gain more international recognition. The island, which China regards as a breakaway province, has just 23 diplomatic allies.
Observers in Taiwan noted Ma's relatively low-key trip. Only five people, including his wife, Chow Mei- ching, and former trade representative to Singapore Vanessa Shih, made up his official entourage.
In contrast, Chen travelled with a party of 50 and made a speech about democracy and ties with the Holy See before leaving for Rome to attend Pope John Paul II's funeral in 2005. Beijing lodged a strong protest with Italy for issuing visas to them.
The Vatican is the only European state that recognises Taipei instead of Beijing. Ties between Beijing and the Vatican have been tense in recent years as China's state-backed church appointed bishops without getting the Vatican's approval.
Some see Beijing's continued deployment of diplomats - instead of officials from the United Front Work Department - to implement Taiwan affairs as a sign that it will look more benignly on Taipei's participation in international activities. For instance, Vice-Foreign Minister Zhang Zhijun now heads the Taiwan Affairs Office, taking over from Mr Wang Yi, who is the new Foreign Minister.
Still, it remains to be seen if Beijing will allow Taipei more "international space". While piecemeal concessions from Beijing are possible, Taiwan's presence on the world stage will be limited so long as both sides fail to reach an agreement on how to define their political ties, said Prof Zhang.
"Maybe Beijing will give Taiwan more space but there won't be any fundamental change," he added.