Taiwan president: 'A long way to go' before talks with China

By Howard Schneider
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 7, 2010; 12:33 PM

TAIPEI -- Despite warming relations and deepening trade ties, it is "premature" to consider a meeting between the leaders of Taiwan and China, Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou said in a Friday interview that set practical limits on his policy of engagement with the mainland.

"There's a long way to go before the two sides can find something in common politically," said Ma, who has overseen a diplomatic and economic thaw with China that U.S. officials regard as of strategic significance, calming one of Asia's most acute potential flashpoints.

Seen as a wayward province by the government in Beijing, Taiwan spent only a few of the past 115 years under the control of a government in China. It is currently governed by Ma's Nationalist Party, which fled China to Taiwan after the communist takeover in 1949.

Though the United States and most other nations have not formally recognized Taiwan, the island has developed into an economic powerhouse and bustling two-party democracy under the protection of U.S.-supplied arms and an implicit guarantee to help if attacked.

While Ma said he did not "exclude the possibility" of meeting the head of China's government in the future, he said the focus was on maintaining the progress being made on trade, travel, and government to government cooperation. The two sides, he said, have reached a workable "status quo" -- with China setting aside vocal demands for unification, Taiwan dampening assertions of independence, and each more committed to keeping the peace.

Ma ruled out, for example, attending a 2011 U.S.-hosted meeting of the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation forum to be held in Hawaii, suggested as a possible venue for a meeting with Chinese President Hu Jintao.

Taiwan's participation in international organizations is often problematic, forcing its delegations to use different names, or to send lower-level officials to meetings of heads of state to avoid implied diplomatic recognition.

"It is premature and it would be very difficult" for Ma to join Hu at the meeting, he said. "The most important thing is to lay the groundwork for institutionalized infrastructure between Taiwan and the mainland."

"At the moment people do not believe that either unification or independence is a good choice. They prefer to maintain the status quo and let the two sides interact in an in-depth fashion and then leave the decisions to future generations. People here want to do business with the mainland but they don't want to have the way of life over there."

Ma is up for reelection in 2012, and the Chinese leadership will also be undergoing a change. According to Taiwanese and other analysts, domestic politics alone make it unlikely that either side will risk a handshake with the other until those transitions are complete.

But Ma was also adamant that he wants to continue deepening relations -- a process he thinks is necessary to secure Taiwan's economy, and which, he argues, will be at least a small prod on Beijing officials to liberalize their country's politics. A million mainland Chinese visitors are expected in Taiwan this year under loosened travel rules that were included among a dozen different agreements officials in Taipei and Beijing have signed since Ma took office two years ago.

Those agreements also allowed direct air service between the two sides, the extradition of accused criminals and other practical steps.

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