On Nov. 4, two events with important implications for world peace and prosperity took place. One of them gripped the world’s attention, while the other, though less noticed, was no less significant.
The former event, of course, was the United States presidential election. People around the world are hoping that America’s choice of new leader will be a powerful catalyst for encouraging nations to rise above narrow national interests and cooperate in addressing the many daunting challenges facing humanity.
The latter event occurred on the other side of the world. In Taipei, negotiating teams representing the governments of Taiwan and mainland China signed a series of agreements that mark a historic step toward easing tensions across the Taiwan Strait and enhancing prospects for peace and prosperity in the Asia-Pacific.
For the past six decades, the development of relations between Taiwan and mainland China has been stymied by a sovereignty dispute which has threatened to spark a conflict that could suck other countries into its vortex and bring the global economy to its knees. Just as nations throughout the world have been looking forward to a style and substance of American leadership that eschews rigid unilateralism in favor of flexible consensus-building, so too have they been hoping for a change of heart among the leaders on either side of the Taiwan Strait that will replace the mounting danger of catastrophic war with progress toward lasting peace.
The four Nov. 4 agreements, along with two earlier ones signed in Beijing on June 13, signal such a change of heart — a sea change in the attitudes of authorities in both Taipei and Beijing that is conducive to fostering cooperation and building mutual trust.
The mere resumption of regular consultations between the two sides’ negotiating teams — Taiwan’s Straits Exchange Foundation, or SEF, and mainland China’s Association for Relations Across the Taiwan Strait, or ARATS — after a decade-long hiatus was enough to draw praise from world leaders as a momentous development. Aside from advancing cross-strait relations, the just-concluded second round of negotiations is significant in that it marks the first time an ARATS team has set foot in Taiwan — a clear sign that both sides have recognized how essential parity and reciprocity are in their interactions.
The agreements may seem unremarkable at first glance. They are technical accords that establish formal frameworks for modes of interaction that virtually all other societies in the international community take for granted in their relations. Included in them are measures to ensure the safety of imported foods; to begin direct maritime shipping; to commence weekday charter flights across the strait; and to expand cooperation in postal services. The earlier two agreements opened the door to weekend cross-strait charter flights and visits of mainland Chinese tour groups to Taiwan.
The ordinariness of such arrangements in international relations highlights just how abnormal and dysfunctional relations between Taiwan and mainland China have been for more than half a century. The absence of them also underlines the danger to peace and prosperity which the Asia-Pacific community has had to live with for so long. If neighbors cannot conduct even the most basic exchanges in a manner universally recognized as civilized and necessary, they run a grave risk of coming to blows and causing harm to the community.
Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou, who took office in May with a strong mandate to improve cross-strait relations, recently set the tone for future consultations and negotiations by emphasizing four principles: The two sides must squarely face reality; neither side should deny the other’s existence or legitimacy; people’s welfare must be the top priority; and what ever actions either side takes must be conducive to peace. In having reached a consensus to focus on issues of immediate, practical importance to both Taiwan and mainland China and put aside thorny sovereignty issues, the two governments have demonstrated their determination to abide by these principles.
No one should underestimate the challenges facing the societies on either side of the strait in their efforts to improve relations. In his victory speech, President-elect Barack Obama said, “The road ahead will be long. Our climb will be steep. We may not get there in one year or even in one term. But, America, I have never been more hopeful than I am tonight that we will get there.” That same day, on the other side of the planet, leaders in Taipei and Beijing hailed their victory over hostility and pessimism in similarly upbeat but realistic terms. Can we in Taiwan and mainland China succeed in transforming enmity into amity? No matter how arduous the road ahead, we must believe, “Yes, we can!”
Vanessa Shih is minister of the Government Information Office of Taiwan.