This Saturday, a top Chinese minister will wrap up a landmark four-day visit to Taiwan. Zhang Zhijun, who oversees Taiwan affairs in China, is the first government official from the mainland to cross the Taiwan Strait since civil war separated the two sides in 1949 – a conflict that, incidentally, has yet to be formally concluded.
The visit comes amid frosty Sino relations with many of its neighbors – i.e., Japan, Vietnam, and the Philippines — and is viewed by many regional analysts as a sign that China is hoping to begin a meaningful dialogue with Taipei. Though, that may be a generous interpretation of Beijing’s outreach, at least according to local protest groups, like the Sunflower Movement. The student-led group notably blockaded Taiwan’s parliament this spring over the passage of a cross-strait trade services agreement with China, sparking nearly a month of anti-China street protests. While that animosity has died down somewhat, the Sunflower Movement hasn’t gone anywhere, despite some albeit lackluster concessions from China, and staged a protest to coincide with Zhang’s visit.
Not that Beijing is deploying the big guns just yet; Zhang spent much of his trip meeting with students, representatives from local businesses, and low-income families, and visiting farms, universities, and a small fishing community in Taiwan’s hinterlands, rather than governmental counterparts in Taipei. But the charm offensive in Taiwan’s poorer regions doesn’t look to be working. Though Taiwan’s President Ma Ying-jeou is viewed as amenable to a thaw with Beijing, high-ranking officials like the powerful mayor of New Taipei, Eric Chu, and the minister responsible for Chinese affairs, Wang Yu-Chin, were quick to assert their island’s sovereignty this week. On Wednesday, the latter issued a firm statement:
Taiwan’s future should under the constitution be decided by Taiwan’s 23 million people. This is also the consensus of Taiwanese people. We hope mainland China can give us that respect.
Take that as a parry against a statement from Beijing, which preceded Zhang’s visit, that cross-strait affairs “should be decided by all Chinese.” While China is showing restraint for the moment, it may not be long before its designs on its former territory shine through – especially since it has never renounced the use of military force to achieve reunification. Warming relations with Taipei may prove short-lived indeed.