China has long considered the US a major supporter of the independence movement in Taiwan, and Chinese leaders are inclined to see any substantial improvement in the US-Taiwan relationship as an encouragement for Taiwan to seek independence. China has previously attempted to prevent Taiwan’s leaders from visiting the US.
Beijing’s silence in response to Ma’s quiet diplomatic success reveals that Taiwan is no longer a negative factor in the great-power relationship between the US and China. That may have a crucial influence on regional stability in East Asia.
President Ma’s visit to New York was distinctly low key. He avoided media interviews and the chance to make a public speech at New York University, familiar turf where he obtained his master’s degree in the late 1970s.
Although some critics at home wanted to see him to have a higher profile, his quiet transit was repaid with access to higher-level contacts in the US government than is typical for a leader from a state without formal diplomatic ties. After the visit, Washington was pleased to hear nothing at all from Beijing.
As a result of President Ma’s “transit diplomacy,” the US may conclude that it is possible to achieve closer ties with Taiwan without harming its relationship with China.
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The history of cross-Strait politics teaches that when China feels nervous about Taiwan’s interest in independence, it may exhibit irrational and unpredictable behavior, leading to conncerns about regional stability. When China feels safe about Taiwan, it becomes more tolerant, enabling the US and other countries to improve their ties with the island.
The current environment supports the argument that Beijing wants to continue this virtuous cycle.
China’s worries were reduced significantly after 2008, when Ma took power and proposed rapprochement with his Chinese counterparts. Ma’s firm support of the 1992 consensus for “One China” had engendered mutual trust between Beijing and Taipei. China now has reason to be confident that Taiwan’s seeking international recognition does not necessarily reflect the pursuit of permanent separation.
Trust on both sides has also grown through years of political dealings. China’s fifth generation of leaders have been acquainted with Taiwan affairs since the beginnings of their political lives.
Before he took on his new role as China’s president, Xi Jinping spent more than two decades governing Fujian, Zhejiang and Shanghai, where millions of Taiwanese businessmen lived with their families.
During that time, he worked to attract Taiwanese investment in local development projects. This may help explain why Xi’s Taiwan policy is notably confident and inclined more to economic than to political imperatives.
President Ma’s diplomatic success in New York may signal a new type of cross-Strait relations in which Washington need not make the difficult choice between Taipei and Beijing.
Charles I-hsin Chen is a researcher at the Centre of Taiwan Studies, School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London.