How Close to China Is Too Close?

Taiwan should be wary of getting too cozy with mainland China.

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Taiwan's former Vice President Vincent Siew, center, leaves after a bilateral meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping in Bali, Indonesia, Sunday, Oct. 6, 2013.

Almost everyone supports the idea of Taiwan and China working to improve relations that have been nothing but rocky since the two nations split in 1949. But as bilateral ties gradually improve, Taiwan should be asking itself, "How close is too close?"

On October 6th, on the sidelines of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Bali, Indonesia, China's new leader, Xi Jinping, spoke with former Taiwanese  Vice President Vincent Siew. Xi used the occasion to make his most straightforward comments to date about improving cross-strait relations, urging the continued development and improvement of bilateral ties and advocating the notion that both sides are "of one family."

Indeed, relations between Taiwan and the People's Republic of China have improved dramatically over the past several years. Following the election of the pro-China Ma Ying-jeou as Taiwan's president in 2008, ties began to normalize rapidly. The cross-strait traveler ban was lifted in 2008, and direct flights between the two commenced that year. Subsequently, in 2009, the landmark Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement was signed by both Beijing and Taipei, opening 205 sectors of manufacturing, services and economics in Taiwan to Chinese investment (and in turn creating more avenues for Chinese businessmen to attain visas to enter Taiwan).

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The trend has continued. The number of flights between Taiwan and the mainland has grown to nearly 700 weekly. In the first half of 2013 alone, there were 166,000 tourists to Taiwan from the mainland, a 237 percent year-on-year increase in tourism from China.

But prudence dictates that Taiwan maintain a certain degree of distance. After all, Beijing has demonstrated a propensity for reneging on promises of self-governance. This September it revoked previous assurances of open elections in Hong Kong by 2017. The People's Republic of China had regained Hong Kong in 1997, touting the banner of "one country, two systems." But on September 9, in a letter to the authorities of Hong Kong, the head of Beijing's Liaison Office, Zhang Xiaoming, wrote to explain that there could be no open nominations for elections. Referencing Article 45 of Hong Kong's Basic Law, he said that open nominations can only come from a "widely representative nomination committee."

This has come at the same time as a widespread internet crackdown in mainland China, signaling further restrictions on the rights of its citizens. In the aftermath of the crackdown last month on widely-followed bloggers and commentators, the Chinese government has detained hundreds of internet users. Perhaps most notable was the arrest of Charles Xue, a blogger with more than 12 million followers, who appeared hand-cuffed on television praising the government for its efforts to control the web. This scare campaign seems to be working; bloggers from all over China have warned fellow netizens to post cautiously online.

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It has been lost on no one that Beijing classifies its relationship with Taiwan in much the same way that it does its ties to Hong Kong. Indeed, a recent public warning – in the form of an ad printed in both Hong Kong and Taiwan newspapers by pro-democracy activists – implored Taiwan to heed the experience of Hong Kong, and tread cautiously in its relations with the mainland.

This trepidation is also felt in Taiwan, where the approval ratings of incumbent president Ma Ying-jeou have plummeted to 9 percent – in part because of his pro-PRC engagement policies. In this context, some commentators have come to see Chinese President Xi's recent comments in favor of closer ties between Beijing and Taipei as an effort to bolster Ma. That may work, but it is likely to further stoke the already-intense debate in Taiwan over the proper balance between closer ties with the mainland and the dangers that such engagement could pose to the island nation's democracy.

Anthony Erlandson is a researcher at the American Foreign Policy Council in Washington, DC.

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