China and Taiwan: What cross-strait thaw?

TAIPEI, Taiwan — In terms of international news, it was barely a blip.

But an ugly quarrel between delegations from China and Taiwan at a recent Tokyo film festival was the type of petty spat that has long characterized interactions between the two sides of the strait on the global stage.

Such incidents help explain why most Taiwanese have a dim view of China's government, and no interest in unification.

They also show how far apart the two sides remain politically, despite a historic warming of economic relations.

It started innocently enough. A group of Taiwanese movie stars and starlets lined up to take a stroll down the "eco-friendly" green carpet at the 23rd International Tokyo Film Festival on Oct. 23. A group from China did the same.

Then the head of China's delegation, Jiang Ping, decided to make a scene. After apparently noting that Taiwan's delegation was participating under the name "Taiwan," he demanded that this moniker be switched to "Chinese Taipei" or "Taiwan, China."

Beijing sees Taiwan as part of China and is hypersensitive to any suggestion on the world stage that the island is actually something else — namely, a de facto sovereign and independent state. For that reason, Taiwan is only allowed to participate in the Olympics and other global sporting events as "Chinese Taipei" due to the high-decibel pressure China puts on organizers.

The head of Taiwan's delegation refused his Chinese counterpart's request, saying "no concessions will be made this time around." Then, as cameras rolled, the two sides bickered.

"The Taiwan area delegation is a part of China's delegation," Jiang angrily told news cameras. At one point he gave Japanese organizers 10 minutes to accept his demands.

In the end, after more than two hours of heated discussions, neither delegation strolled the green carpet. China later withdrew from the event entirely after the Japanese hosts refused to enforce its demands.

But what really added news value in Taiwan were the waterworks from Taiwanese celebrity Vivian Hsu, one of the island's stars at the festival.

A news clip of the actress crying in Tokyo was played and replayed in Taiwan's frantic media. Hsu told reporters that one Taiwanese actor had "torn off his tie" after being told they couldn't walk the carpet. Hsu herself had bought a more than $6,500 Zac Posen-designed dress for the occasion, only to be stymied by the Chinese, media reported. The head of Taiwan's delegation said he felt as if his daughter's wedding had been ruined.

Soon the editorials poured forth and talk show discussions ensued. The island's internecine quarrels were put aside for a moment as politicians and commentators of all stripes lined up to condemn China's behavior and applaud Taiwan's delegation for standing up to China. The spat in Tokyo "proved to Taiwan's people that unification with China is absolutely not a good thing," wrote the Apple Daily. The presidential spokesman rebuked China, as did the premier, who said Jiang's behavior was "unreasonable and rude."

Such a strong reaction to a tiff at a minor event may seem puzzling to outsiders. But it speaks to the petty humiliation Taiwan routinely endures from China at international events — treatment that dredges up deeply emotional issues of identity and respect. While the rest of the world is just now getting to know a more assertive China, Taiwanese have long been familiar with Beijing's sterner face.

"We have to stand up to say we don't agree with that type of behavior," said George Tsai, a cross-strait relations expert at Chinese Culture University in Taipei. "We have our dignity and principles."

China has in the past two years allowed Taiwan to participate in some World Health Organization meetings as an observer. But it continues to block Taiwan's participation in other bodies.

One example, at the top of Taiwan's priority list, is the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. Membership would allow Taiwan to network on green energy issues and receive technical and financial support for such efforts; China continues to block the island's participation.

Such snubs — hardly newsworthy outside Taiwan — have had a cumulative effect on Taiwanese. In the Taiwan government's latest opinion poll on cross-strait relations from September, 48 percent of those polled think China is "unfriendly" toward Taiwan's government, with 37 percent thinking China is "friendly," despite a dramatic warming in ties and the recent signing of a historic trade deal.

Just 10 percent of Taiwanese support unification with China, with a scant 1.7 percent supporting unification "as soon as possible," according to the government's latest data.

Well aware of this public sentiment, the Taiwan government has recently stressed that it has no timetable for political talks with China.

Analysts say that President Ma Ying-jeou has accomplished much of his cross-strait economic agenda, and is likely to put any further, substantial cross-strait talks on hold indefinitely. That's because he's now returning to job No. 1 for any Taiwanese politician: winning elections.

Local polls are coming up at the end of November. Those will soon be followed in Taiwan's hectic election schedule by a primary season, legislative elections and Ma's own re-election bid in March 2012.

Under the circumstances, slamming China for its film festival tantrum was a political no-brainer. Tsai said that "domestic political considerations" helped explain the strong backlash to China's belittling behavior; it was an easy way to score points by defending Taiwan's dignity.

Moreover, China has yet to meet Ma's longstanding condition for political talks; namely, that Beijing draw down its missile arsenal across from Taiwan, now estimated by the U.S. military at some 1,050 to 1,150 short-range ballistic missiles and scores of cruise missiles.

There are some signs this might change. Chinese premier Wen Jiabao caused a stir in September when he made vague comments suggesting the missile issue could eventually be addressed. Chinese Culture University's Tsai, who just returned from a trip to China, said Chinese academics told him Beijing is "seriously considering the possibility of re-deploying the missiles," but that it doesn't want to appear to do so under pressure.

"So if we keep a low profile, it will be easier for them to do this," said Tsai, who was told there is "very high-ranking internal discussion" in China on re-deploying the missiles, and even an "inclination" to do so.

But so far there haven't been any concrete steps. Even if there were, Tsai and other analysts say political talks are "out of the question." "It's not in the foreseeable future," said Tsai. "It's not in Ma Ying-jeou's interests, and it's not on his political agenda."

Ma's own premier said conditions are "not yet ripe" for political talks.

And if he needed any help making that point, what better than a fresh-faced Taiwanese actress, reduced to tears by China's bullying, at an event intended to celebrate cinema and the arts — not power politics.