China and Taiwan: Frenemies, at Last

China and Taiwan: Frenemies, at Last

Why you should care

Hong Kong isn’t the only place to protest against China this year. 

It’s a totally different Asia that President Obama is visiting this week. It might look like Taiwan has cozied up to its big-stick-carrying neighbor China. But resentment is brewing under all the bonhomie. And that ought to be on President Obama’s mind as he tries to soothe the nerves of one of the most volatile regions on Earth.

The numbers might suggest the relationship is thawing:

Over the past six years, Chinese investors created

9,600 jobs in Taiwan.

A trade agreement between the two countries netted

$123 billion in 2013.

Plus, the tourists are a’comin: Mainland Chinese tourists hit Taiwan in small numbers — under 300,000 a year — back in 2008. Now that number has grown to 2.8 million visits to Taiwan per year, with 118 daily direct flights.

But for all the ups, the relationship still has plenty of downs — first and foremost, that Chinese leaders look down on Ma Ying-jeou, the Taiwanese president. Which means that the China-Taiwan relationship “will of course be impacted,” says Kao Chih-peng, a senior opposition party lawmaker. The chill has been creeping since last year, when Chinese President Xi Jinping said the question of who governs the island can no longer be delayed. Taiwanese interpreted the comment as pressure to discuss the possibility of joint rule. That’s why another number, this one from Taiwan’s government policymaking agency, is important: 70 percent of Taiwanese oppose unification.

Demonstrators shout slogans in front of the Presidential Office in Taipei March 30, 2014.

Demonstrators shout slogans in front of the Presidential Office Building in Taipei, Taiwan.

Source Toby Chang/Reuters

Many Taiwanese fear that deals with China will erode Taiwan’s de facto independence. Several hundred Taiwanese, led by university students, protested a proposed trade agreement with China this spring. More bilateralism could blow the tinderbox. There was no explosion this spring, just some vociferous discontent: 300,000 protesters camped outside the legislative assembly hall for 24 days.

Xi Jinping did not exactly win Taiwanese converts when he suggested that Hong Kong could be a model for Taiwan.

“Taiwan’s youth are something that Beijing needs to be taking into account,” says Kweibo Huang, associate professor of diplomacy at National Chengchi University in Taipei. And indeed, the protests gave a big, clear sign — at least to Taiwanese legislators who, facing upcoming elections, postponed ratifying the trade deal. Reaction to the trade deal was “unexpected,” says Bonnie Glaser, senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a think tank in Washington. The quiet truth is that progress between the countries is slowing — maybe to a halt, she says.

Since then, Taiwan has continued on an anti-China upswing. Ma took a shot at China by expressing support for Hong Kong’s democracy protesters. And Xi Jinping did not exactly win Taiwanese converts when he suggested that Hong Kong could be a model for Taiwan, with each falling under Chinese sovereignty but with a measure of autonomy.

So today, for Obama, it’s a matter of keeping an already-fragile relationship steady. That won’t be easy. Getting between frenemies is usually a fraught task.

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