Getting It Strait

5 minute read
Zoher Abdoolcarim

When the exiled tibetan spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, last visited Taiwan eight years ago, Beijing went ballistic. To China’s leaders, the Dalai Lama is Public Enemy No. 1 for, they claim, fomenting Tibetan separatism. Until very recently, the Beijing view of Taiwan was just as jaundiced and one-dimensional: a renegade province led and populated by disloyal subjects bent on denying China’s Party-given right to rule them. Put the two together and you have the mainland’s worst “splittist” nightmare. As the Dalai Lama sat down with all the island’s then top political figures, Beijing practically tossed every invective across the narrow Strait of Taiwan short of declaring war.

(Read “Why Taiwan’s President Allowed the Dalai Lama Visit.”)

Fast-forward to today. On Aug. 30 the Dalai Lama landed in Taiwan to comfort and bless victims of Typhoon Morakot, one of the deadliest storms to strike the island. The Chinese leadership’s reaction to the Dalai Lama’s presence? Simply that it “resolutely opposes this.” Beijing canceled or downgraded some bilateral events, but these were not deal breakers. For Beijing, which has fired missiles toward Taiwan in the past, the action was akin to throwing a snowball. In fact, on the Dalai Lama’s first full day in Taiwan, the two sides, once the most implacable of foes, inaugurated direct regular flights — the first since the Chinese civil war ended 60 years ago. New history cannot be denied.

(See pictures of Taiwan’s typhoon terror.)

What changed? First, Taiwan President Ma Ying-jeou eschewed the breakaway bluster of his predecessor Chen Shui-bian and, amid the global recession, hitched Taiwan’s economic future to China’s growth engine. In just the 15 months Ma has been in office, Taiwan and China have launched a raft of trade, investment, transport and cultural initiatives and exchanges that are inexorably binding the two together. As much as it will ever trust any Taiwan leader, Beijing sees Ma as a pragmatic politician with whom it can do business.

(Read “Building Bridges to China.”)

But the genuinely transformative factor is that China now gets Taiwan. The island is a more complex place for Beijing to decipher than Hong Kong and Macau, former British and Portuguese colonies whose governments could make no moral argument against the return of the two territories to Chinese sovereignty. Taiwan is different. Since 1987, when the ruling Kuomintang (KMT) lifted martial law, the island has gradually become a thriving, if somewhat rambunctious, democracy. Its 23 million people determine its future, not Beijing or London or Lisbon. A sizeable portion of the population — some estimates put it at as high as a third — opposes Ma’s overtures to China. It’s this constituency that nurtures former President Chen’s pro-independence opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP). Even those who favor eventual unification with China embrace a strong sense of Taiwan identity.

(Read “China and Taiwan Draw Closer, Amid Protests.”)

The growing numbers of tourists, scholars, journalists, businesspeople and even senior officials crossing the Strait in both directions have enabled China to better understand what makes Taiwan tick. Now Beijing’s strategy is more nuanced. That’s partly tactical: the hard-line approach was driving people to the DPP. But it’s also an effort to win Taiwan hearts and minds and to show that China, too, is more complex than a caricature of a totalitarian state.

Take the Dalai Lama episode. The opposition DPP invited him to Taiwan in order to put Ma in a spot — he’d be damned by his own people as a mainland lackey if he did not okay the visit and condemned by Beijing if he did. Ma took a gamble: he approved the trip — and bet on China’s leaders appreciating his dilemma. They did. Their censure was directed solely at the DPP, with no mention of Ma whatsoever. Far from harming cross-strait relations, the Dalai Lama’s visit revealed how mature those relations have become.

For the next step, both sides must take a leap of faith. It’s great that Beijing and Ma get along, but Ma won’t be around forever, perhaps not even for long — he has taken a hit at home over the hurting economy and, more recently, over his government’s less-than-stellar Morakot relief efforts. While Beijing has a big stake in Ma’s political survival, it should start looking beyond the current President and the KMT and build bridges certainly to moderate DPP politicians. After all, the party could come back to power. As for those in Taiwan who still believe they can live apart from China — well, they need to get real. In today’s world, no place can flourish without having a meaningful relationship with China, least of all Taiwan. In today’s world, no economy can be an island.

The Strait of Taiwan was long one of the world’s flash points, with the potential to draw even the U.S. into conflict. It’s hard to predict the future China and Taiwan have with each other, but it’s easy to imagine, given all the progress that has occurred, that war is no longer a possibility. That’s something to be thankful for — and something truly deserving of a Dalai Lama’s blessing.

See pictures of the Dalai Lama.

Read “Dalai Lama Meets Protests, Tears in Taiwan.”

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at