Long road ahead before peace between Taiwan and China

By Ben Blanchard

TAIPEI (Reuters) — An end to the more than half a century of hostility and tension between Taiwan and China may be in the offing with the election of a more China-friendly president for the island, but progress will be slow and tortuous.

The opposition Nationalist Party's Ma Ying-jeou won in a landslide on Saturday, March 22, against an opponent who had tried to use recent bloody protests in Tibet to scare people into not voting for Ma.

The Democratic Progressive Party's Frank Hsieh said Taiwan risked becoming another Tibet if Ma, with his more pro-China views, won.

Though that strategy backfired, Ma now has to try and reach out to China, but without being seen to compromise Taiwan's security.

"They (China) remain the greatest security threat," Ma told a news conference on Sunday. "Taiwan's identity has to be respected, and we have to negotiate with each other on equal footing.

"What I can promise voters is that we will not negotiate the issue of unification and we will not support de jure independence," he added, speaking in fluent English. "And we will oppose the use of force across the Taiwan Strait."

But Ma said he would not consider talking peace with China, which claims the self-ruled island as its own, until Beijing removes missiles aimed at Taiwan.

The two sides have been run separately since 1949, when defeated Nationalist forces fled to Taiwan at the end of a civil war. China has never renounced the use of force to bring the island under its control.

Despite that, economic ties are close, and Taiwanese companies have invested billions of dollars in China, drawn by low costs and a common language and culture. China is also Taiwan's biggest trading partner.
Yet there are still no direct flights allowed across the narrow Taiwan Strait, aside from limited charter services.

"Voters hope that Ma will help cross-Strait relations to return to normal and that both sides can see a win-win solution," said Jeff Lin, associate dean of the Institute For Advanced Studies in Humanities and Social Sciences at National Taiwan University.

"But this will be his biggest challenge, because cross-Strait relations take a lot of negotiation and Taiwan does not have the people who will be able to do that. Therefore we could be at a disadvantage," Lin added.

Armed to the teeth

The state of war between the two sides still exists, as no peace treaty has ever been signed. Taiwan is armed to the teeth, mainly with U.S. weapons, and China is rapidly modernizing its military to close the technology gap.
Chinese President Hu Jintao offered earlier this month peace talks, under the so-called "one China" principle, which contends the island and the mainland are part of a single sovereign country, a concept Taiwan's current government has rejected.

In a move sure to infuriate Beijing, Ma said he'd be happy to meet Tibet's exiled spiritual leader the Dalai Lama, who China has accused of masterminding the violence in Tibet.

So Ma may concentrate on the easier aspects of dealing with China, such as practical issues like the ban on direct links, rather than far thornier political problems. And he will have to prioritize Taiwan's pressing domestic economic issues.

"In the near future we can expect direct flights and tourism. But a peace agreement isn't so easily possible. Our national development is a new priority," said Chao Chien-min, professor at Taipei's National Cheng Chi University.

And don't expect dramatic progress this year, said Bruce Jacobs, Asian Studies professor at Australia's Monash University.

"At the end of 2008 I wouldn't expect any breakthroughs with China. The Chinese don't think it's in their interest unless they get their one China," he said.

"To be nice to China and expect China to be nice back is not going to work."

But in a gesture of friendship to Beijing, Ma said he would accept two pandas offered by China to the island three years ago and rejected by the then-ruling DPP.

(Additional reporting by Ralph Jennings and Sheena Lee; Editing by David Fox)