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China and Taiwan have a chance for progress

Important talks were held on Tuesday between China and Taiwan, indicating improved relations and a corresponding reduction in long-standing tensions between the two in East Asia.

The Chinese delegation was headed by Zhang Zhijun, head of its Taiwan Affairs Office; the Taiwanese delegation by Wang Yu-chi, head of its Mainland Affairs Council. Both are high-ranking officers in their governments.

The islands that constitute Taiwan broke off from the People's Republic of China in 1949 when the leaders of what was then referred to as Nationalist China fled the mainland, having lost the post-World War II civil war with the Communist Chinese. Relations between China, which claims Taiwan as part of it, and Taiwan have followed an uneven path across the years since. They started with near warfare and included occasional Taiwanese claims to independence. Now the two have important economic ties.

These developments would seem, first, to preclude war and, perhaps, to lead over the long term to an eventual relationship that would not be unlike that which Beijing has with Hong Kong and Macau. The meeting between China and Taiwan that just took place, at Nanjing, China, was not the first contact, but was at the highest level since the 1949 split and unprecedented in its visibility, including in the media.

Trade between China and Taiwan has doubled in recent years, reaching $197 billion (Bt6.4 trillion) last year. China was Taiwan's biggest customer in 2013, buying 28.8 per cent of the islands' exports. An estimated 3 million mainland Chinese visited Taiwan last year.

There are still plenty of issues to discuss, including 1,500 Taiwanese in Chinese jails, 1,200 Chinese missiles pointed at Taiwan and other problems stemming from the two entities' disproportionate sizes. Taiwan's population is 23 million, while China's is 1.3 billion.

Better, quieter, less militarised China-Taiwan relations are very much to America's advantage. The United States remains pledged to protect Taiwan and has in the past sold it aircraft, missiles, ships and arms upgrades to maintain its military credibility. On the other hand, it would not be to the US advantage to have to defend Taiwan from China, only 180 kilometres away across the Taiwan Straits.

Thus, steps to improve China-Taiwan relations, including the discussed opening of new liaison offices in Beijing and Taipei, should be welcomed by Washington.


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