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LONDON, Oct 2 2011 (IPS) - The European Union’s economic alliance may be embattled and on the verge of collapse but in some parts of the world its integration model is still a beacon. Experts from both sides of the Taiwan Strait – one of the world’s potentially most explosive areas – are studying the conflict resolution experience of the European Union in the hope of taking the precarious relationship between China and Taiwan forward.
Taiwan, which has de facto independence but is considered a rebel province by communist-ruled mainland China, is facing contentious presidential elections in January – just months before the communist party in Beijing is to undergo a leadership handover.
While relations between the former arch-enemies, which once fought a civil war, have improved significantly over the last three years mainly through facilitated trade, the raw issue of Taiwan’s future has been left in limbo.
China seeks ultimate unification with the island and has never renounced the use of force should Taiwan declare formal independence. Taiwan’s current rulers – the KMT or the Nationalist party – have betted on economic rapprochement with the mainland, preferring to leave the festering problem of political talks for the future.
But experts warn this may not work in the long run. At a recent London conference on drawing lessons from the EU experience many pointed out that the EU has achieved integration on unprecedented scale based on mutual recognition.
“There are certain conditions for the EU model to work,” Thomas Diez, professor of political science with the University of Tubingen, Germany, told the conference. “In regard to the Taiwan Strait – unless you find your framework and address the sovereignty issue you risk spoiling the whole process of reconciliation.”
Prof. Dai Bingran with the Centre for European Studies at Shanghai Fudan University disagrees. “The sovereignty issue should be left for the future generations to solve,” he argued, pointing out that if the European Union is taken as example, sovereignty becomes less and less an issue over time. “In 40 or 50 years there may not exist an issue of sovereignty,” Dai suggested. “There will be so many multilateral international agreements in place, and the truth is that each time we sign an international agreement we give up a little bit of our sovereignty.”
Since the Nationalist Party’s candidate Ma Ying-jeou took office in Taiwan in May 2008, he has based his mainland policy on the principle of “mutual non-denial” where neither side insists on the other side recognising it formally. The KMT argues this has created room for both sides to compromise and move forward cross-strait relations, which under the previous rule of the pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) were stagnated.
Prof. Su Chi, senior adviser to Ma Ying-jeou, thinks the concept of sovereignty – though fervently guarded by many in Taiwan, is outdated. “It is a very European concept and the Chinese adopted it from Europe in the beginning,” he said. “But the concept has evolved and if we think of it as a water tank, this tank is now leaking. The Europeans being its original creators should now work to revise it to suit the world’s new realities.”
Some EU scholars are in fact already talking about the concept of ‘Taiwanisation’ in a European context.
“Beijing does not favour the turning of the cross-strait relations into a model because it is afraid of external interference,” Bruno Coppieters, professor of political science at the Free University of Brussels told IPS. “But the EU has recently discussed the cross-Strait relations as a model of engagement policies without recognition that may perhaps be applicable in places like Georgia and Abkhazia for instance.”
Under Ma’s so-called “diplomatic truce”, 15 agreements have been signed between Beijing and Taipei, establishing direct trade, transportation and postal services. People-to-people communications and academic exchanges have thrived, with some 1.6 million mainlanders visiting Taiwan just in 2009.
The opposition DPP party though, has remained sceptical, arguing that closer economic and trade cooperation between the two sides will inevitably lead to political unification on China’s terms. The DPP presidential candidate in January elections, Tsai Ing-wen, says the KMT is moving too far and too fast in its bid to improve relations with China, threatening Taiwan’s de facto independence in the process.
Ma Ying-jeou has been vague on the possibility of unification talks, conditioning the negotiations on China’s removal of the estimated 1,300 missiles it has aimed at Taiwanese targets. But a U.S. diplomatic cable released by WikiLeaks has cited Taiwan’s Vice-President Vincent Siew as saying that if re-elected for a second term next year, Ma Ying-jeou will open political talks with China.
As cross-Strait relations have followed the “easy things first, difficult things later” principle in the last few years, experts warn that sooner or later Taipei and Beijing will run out of easy options and will have to face to the raw matter of unification.
China’s remarkable rise is another factor, which adds uncertainty to the future outlook. The question how long China will be willing to tolerate Taiwan’s efforts to expand its international space without reciprocation on Taipei’s side looms large.
“The speedy rise of China’s comprehensive power has dramatically changed the context of its national interests,” Chen Hsin-chih, associate professor with Taiwan’s National Cheng Kung University told IPS. “The low-profile strategy adopted by mainland China in the past has become outdated now that the country has become an international power to be reckoned with.”
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