The 2008 Boao Forum for Asia (BFA) occurred at an unusually auspicious moment in cross-strait relations-both sides wanted something positive to come out of the forum. On the Taiwan side, Vincent Siew had just been elected vice president, but had not yet taken office. He was therefore free to travel to China as a private citizen and there advocate for his proposed cross-strait common market. On the other side of the strait, China was reeling from protests during its Olympic torch relay over its handling of Tibetan unrest and needed positive news from the forum to burnish its international image. The result was an epochal meeting that went a long way towards thawing the eight-year freeze.
The international media responded very positively to the meeting, with the Associated Press calling it a "diplomatic coup" for Ma Ying-jeou and Siew, and Agence France-Presse noting that US officials welcomed the meeting as a "significant milestone." But political and legal disagreements are likely to continue in spite of this international enthusiasm and the trend towards greater cross-strait economic cooperation. Our new government must act cautiously if it is to secure enduring cross-strait peace and prosperity.
The three-day Boao Forum for Asia (BFA), held annually in the city of Boao on Hainan Island, wrapped up on April 13. This year's event marked the first meeting between Chinese and Taiwanese officials since October 1998's Koo-Wang talks in Shanghai, and was the highest-level meeting between the two sides since they split nearly 60 years ago.
Vincent Siew's participation in this year's BFA as vice-president-elect was quite a different matter than his previous five visits as chairman of the private Cross-Straits Common Market Foundation, which was a founding member of the BFA in 2002. Siew has now attended the BFA six times. Ma Ying-jeou and Siew will take office on 20 May, and many saw this year's BFA as their first foray into cross-strait relations. Others viewed it more optimistically as the opening of a new era in Taiwan-China relations.
Siew led a nine-member delegation that included important business leaders such as Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing chairman Morris Chang, Walsin Lihwa Group chairman Chiao Yu-lon and Taiwan Cement chairman Leslie Koo, as well as future cross-strait policy makers such as Su Chi, the former chairman of the Mainland Affairs Council who is the presumptive secretary-general of the National Security Council.
They attended the conference in a spirit of "facing reality, creating future opportunities, setting aside disputes, and pursuing win-win solutions." In addition to holding talks with PRC president Hu Jintao, the delegation met with former US secretary of state Colin Powell, former Australian prime minister Bob Hawke, and former Philippines president Fidel Ramos.
The Hu-Siew meeting was important as a symbol of cross-strait thawing, and both sides made the most of the opportunity. Hu showed goodwill by discussing the promotion of economic cooperation and working together to create win-win solutions. Siew, for his part, offered four urgent recommendations-permitting cross-strait charter flights on weekends, opening tourism in Taiwan to mainland residents, reopening cross-strait negotiating channels, and normalizing cross-strait economic and trade relations.
Before the forum closed, Siew and PRC commerce minister Chen Deming jointly hosted a roundtable discussion that reached a consensus on four points: closer cross-strait economic and trade ties are an important trend that benefits both sides; given the mutual benefit of cross-strait economic and trade relations, the two sides should cooperate more intensively in their joint development; opening up the "three links" and normalizing cross-strait economic and trade relations are urgent tasks; and the two sides should create a platform for communications and negotiations at the earliest possible time.
Siew also took the opportunity to drum up business from the mainland. He stated that when the new government takes office, it will promote a series of 12 construction projects, including an improved island-wide transportation network, an ecological free port in Kaohsiung, an Asia-Pacific logistics center for air and sea freight in Taichung, further development and reorganization of the Taoyuan International Airport, taking Taiwan further into the digital age, creating entrepreneurial corridors, renovating urban and industrial areas, reinvigorating agriculture, reviving the coasts, planting more forests and greening the island, new flood control works, and the construction of new sewer systems. The private sector is to pay one-third of the estimated NT$4 trillion the projects will cost, and Siew hopes the mainland will invest in a portion of the rest. Chen Deming agreed, noting that if mainland firms were contracted to do some of the work, the costs would be the lowest in the world. Chen optimistically estimated that there was more than NT$1 trillion in business opportunities in Taiwan for mainland firms.
The BFA came to a close in an atmosphere of peace and amity. Though there were no breakthroughs on the issues our citizens most hoped to hear about-an end to China's obstruction of our joining international organizations and a promise to remove the missiles aimed at Taiwan-China generally showed flexibility and goodwill. It even acknowledged making a mistake in a press release mentioning the sensitive "one-China principle" and corrected it after Siew protested.
With the success of the Hu-Siew talks creating expectations of more pragmatic cross-strait liberalization, the Taiwan stock market took off. Construction, financial, steel and bulk cargo issues all gained significantly. Policies to liberalize the exchange of RMB in Taiwan and to allow mainland investment in commercial real estate are also now being given serious consideration. Even pro-DPP city and county heads have begun changing their anti-China stances. Kaohsiung mayor Chen Chu, for example, will attend the Beijing International Tourism Expo in June to encourage mainland tourists to visit Kaohsiung. Yunlin County commissioner Su Chih-fen also plans to travel to China to promote her county's agricultural products.
The BFA has kick-started cross-strait-reconciliation efforts and a flurry of activity will soon be underway. Once Taiwan's isolationist attitude changes, normalization of cross-strait economic and trade relations will soon follow, providing protections for Taiwanese businesses in the mainland and opening up Taiwan to China's abundant investment and human resources. In addition, if China's word is good, "all cross-strait issues will be open to discussion" once Taiwan returns to the 1992 consensus. We can also look forward to Taiwan having more room to breathe internationally through entry into ASEAN and other regional political and trade bodies. Collectively, these advances should ease our persistent fear of marginalization.
President-elect Ma Ying-jeou also announced on 14 April that he would appoint KMT vice chairman P.K. Chiang to head the Straits Exchange Foundation once the new government takes power on 20 May. Chiang is reportedly planning to get a head start on his duties by visiting Beijing in early May to begin preparation for the resumption of talks with China's Association for Relations Across the Taiwan Straits.
Though the BFA bore diplomatic fruit, Ma and Siew stressed afterwards that thawing cross-strait relations will take both time and understanding. They argued that preventing the thaw from turning into a flood requires that they move slowly.
More than 40% of Taiwan's voters supported the DPP candidates in this year's presidential election, and their pro-independence and de-Sinification positions will not change overnight. In fact, these voters are likely to be outraged if Taiwan-China relations advance too rapidly. Finding common ground and achieving a consensus within Taiwan will be crucial to the ultimate success of cross-strait relations.