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China and Taiwan: What cross-strait thaw?

Famous Taiwanese actress Vivian Hsu was reduced to tears — and that's just the tip of the iceberg.

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.