Nearly eight years ago, Kuomintang (KMT) elder Lien Chan's ice-breaking visit to Beijing helped ease tensions in one of Asia's most dangerous flashpoints, and ushered in the current warm cross-strait ties.
Last week’s visit to the Chinese capital by Lien, now the honorary chairman of the ruling KMT, again carried much significance, and could change the tone of cross-strait ties and break new ground in the coming years, according to observers.
First, they point to the timing of the four-day trip, which came at the invitation of new Communist Party chief Xi Jinping. It took place just before Chinese President Hu Jintao retires this month. Hu had already relinquished the reins of the party and the military to Xi in November.
The timing is the new Chinese supremo’s affirmation of the “peaceful development” path fostered by Hu and Lien after their historic 2005 meeting, said Beijing-based analyst Li Fan.
“It signals that there will be continuity in the mainland’s cross-strait policy under Xi. Lien is the best person to show the continuity, since he broke the ice in 2005,” said Li, who heads the World and China Institute, a private think-tank.
That meeting between Hu and Lien, who was then KMT chairman, resurrected dialogue on a party-to-party platform between Taiwan and the mainland following their split at the end of the civil war in 1949.
The agreement both sides inked called for the pursuit of “happiness of the people on both sides and resuming consultations on an equal footing”, plus the signing of a peace pact. The agreement is widely seen as the foundation for the close cross-strait collaboration that began from 2008, after the KMT took power when its new chairman Ma Ying-jeou won the election that year. Ma was re-elected last year.
Since 2008, both sides have inked 18 agreements, allowed direct sea, air and postal links, and signed the landmark Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement, a free-trade deal, in 2010.
After four years of close economic and trade cooperation, observers say Lien’s latest visit shows that China wants to expand cross-strait ties, judging from the make-up of the Taiwanese delegation of more than 30. Though it comprised mostly businessmen such as Foxconn boss Terry Gou and politicians like Lien’s son Sean, 43, a member of the KMT’s central leadership, it included representatives from Taiwan’s religious, unionist, agricultural and literary circles.
Also, rhetoric from the Xi-Lien meeting last Monday showed that both sides are ready and eager to boost interaction in the political realm, say analysts. They cited how Xi, during his meeting with Lien at the Great Hall of the People, pledged to continue peaceful development of cross-strait ties towards the goal of peaceful reunification. China regards Taiwan as a renegade province to be recovered by force if necessary.
Reunification was reportedly not on the agenda during the 2005 meeting, which makes Xi’s remarks significant, said Taiwan expert Wu Nengyuan at the Fujian Academy of Social Sciences.
“Xi’s mention of reunification signals that political dialogue could be a goal for both the KMT and the Communist Party in the next few years,” said Wu.
Another telling sign came from Lien’s remarks that both sides should work towards “establishing a balanced, equal and effective political structure” for peaceful and sustainable development of cross-strait relations.
According to the China Post, Lien, who met Hu on Tuesday, said talks on issues such as the setting up of military confidence-building measures and the signing of a peace treaty could begin with dialogue between experts and non-governmental groups from both sides.
Li, who has studied Taiwanese politics, believes the rhetoric reflects a sense of urgency on both sides to get started on political dialogue within the next three years, before the next Taiwan presidential election in 2016.
One reason is the fear of a return to power by the pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party, whose reign from 2000 to 2008 under Chen Shui-bian saw cross-strait ties hit a nadir.
Said Li: “The possibility of the KMT losing power is real. For the mainland, if it doesn’t initiate discussions about reunification now, it may be harder to do so closer to or after Taiwan’s election.
“But reunification is a controversial topic that could affect the KMT’s chances at the next polls. So how fast to push this in the coming years is a delicate balance that both sides have to strike.”