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CROSSING OVER

This could truly be a great leap forward for China. Beijing’s first-ever official talks with Taiwan are significant not only for the two sides but also for peace and stability in the region. Taiwan, which China claims to be part of its territory, has always been more than an irritant for several generations of communist China’s leaders. Its history, politics and even geography have together made it a thorn in Beijing’s side. Every time there is an election in Taiwan, China is worried about the prospect of a pro-independence party seizing power in Taipei. In 1995 and 1996, China fired missiles in the waters around Taiwan on the eve of the latter’s first democratic presidential elections. Relations between the two sides soured when pro-independence leader Chen Shui-bian was Taiwan’s president between 2000 and 2008. Given the history of hostilities between the Communists and Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalists during China’s civil war, the talks that began in Nanjing earlier this week mark a significant development. Irrespective of what the talks achieve, the fact that the two sides met for the first time since 1949 officially speaks of some fundamental changes in cross-Straits ties.

Obviously, both sides have worked hard and for long to reach where they have come. The first stirrings of change in cross-Straits relations were evident as early as 2008, when pro-mainland leader, Ma Ying-jeou, was elected Taiwan’s president. A series of negotiations and agreements — on trade, communication and transportation — prepared the ground for the meeting in Nanjing. In 2008, there was the first-ever meeting between the top leaders of Taiwan’s Kuomintang Party and the Communist Party of China, the bitter rivals which killed millions of each other’s comrades during the country’s civil war. Both sides have their own interests in easing out tensions and reducing areas of conflict. But trade and economic relations have been the main driving force for reconciliatory strategies on either side. Over the past few years, tourism and passenger transportation between China and Taiwan have increased substantially. It may be premature to see the meeting in Nanjing as a final proof of improved ties between the two. Large sections of the people in Taiwan are still sceptical of many of China’s policies. Beijing needs to do more to assure the Taiwanese that it will not impose its will on them or use force to settle contentious issues.