Senior Chinese official visits Taiwan

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The director of China's Taiwan Affairs Office, Zhang Zhijun, will visit Taiwan this week. He is the most senior People's Republic of China (PRC) official to visit the island since Chiang Kai-shek fled there in 1949, and he comes to reciprocate a visit by his Taiwan counterpart, Wang Yu-chi, this past February.

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Zhang's original intention to visit in April was stymied by student-led demonstrations in Taiwan this spring protesting a pending cross-Strait services trade agreement — including the protestors' occupation of the legislature for more than three weeks. Because that agreement is still a matter of fierce partisan debate, and because the spokesperson from Zhang's office made a highly controversial statement about Taiwan's future (saying that it was up to all Chinese, not just those in Taiwan), some people have argued that Zhang will face protests and his timing is bad.

However, there will be important local elections in Taiwan at the end of November and a visit later in the year would threaten to become enmeshed in the campaign.

Moreover, although the Mainland is aware there is strong support in Taiwan for maintaining the status quo indefinitely and overwhelming opposition to eventual unification, Beijing appears to have been taken aback both by the student-led demonstrations and the very broad public backing they received.

An important part of that support was with the perceived failure of the Ma Ying-jeou administration to consult broadly enough about the trade agreement with industry, the legislature and the public. But a large part of it also reflected public angst about the terms of this specific agreement and about the feeling that all such agreements, while benefiting Taiwan, pose some level of national security risk and could put Taiwan on an inevitable course to unification.

Mirroring Wang Yu-chi's itinerary in the Mainland, Zhang will not visit the capital city of Taipei or meet with senior officials other than Wang. Instead, resurrecting a theme that was in vogue two or three years ago about reaching out to the "grass roots" in Taiwan and to people in the central and southern regions of the island, Zhang will focus on people in those categories.

However, he will also meet with a number of mayors, including the most popular politician in Taiwan today, the opposition party Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) mayor of Kaohsiung, Taiwan's third largest city. He will not, however, meet with the DPP chair, both because Beijing has rejected party-to-party relations unless the DPP embraces "one China" and rejects "Taiwan independence" as well as because party headquarters are in Taipei.

According to officials, no agreements or announcements will come out of Zhang’s visit. Disappointingly, this means that the long-pending negotiation on reciprocal establishment of offices of the organizations that conduct "unofficial" cross-Strait business will not be concluded, even though the last difficult issues have reportedly been resolved.

Zhang will doubtless continue to plug for movement from unofficial to official political dialogue as soon as possible. This has been part of PRC rhetoric for a long time, but it received special emphasis late last year. The student-led protest movement, however, has apparently led to a reevaluation at least of tactics. Hence, rather than emphasizing the final goal of peaceful reunification, which featured in several senior-level speeches and articles in late 2013, the more likely thrust of Zhang's remarks will be on mutual benefit and peaceful development of relations.

One issue that has been much discussed over the past year is the possibility of a meeting between Ma Ying-jeou and his PRC counterpart, PRC President and Communist Party General Secretary Xi Jinping. Both sides favor it. But modalities matter, and there are two big, related obstacles standing in the way.

First, unless such a meeting were to take place in a venue where official titles don't matter, Ma needs to participate in his capacity as president of the Republic of China, which Beijing could not accept. Ma has suggested that they finesse that issue by meeting at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) leaders meeting in Beijing this November, where participants nominally attend as "heads of economies," not heads of state or government.

For Beijing, however, such a venue would imply Taiwan's equal standing with the other nations attending. Moreover, it would put the cross-Strait relationship into an "international" setting. Neither is acceptable to Beijing.

Largely for reasons of political sensitivity in Taiwan, this issue is not likely to be addressed directly during Zhang's visit. Nonetheless, people will be watching for any signs of flexibility.

In sum, the importance of Zhang's visit to Taiwan is largely in the fact that it is taking place. But it should also be an occasion for Zhang and the people he meets to learn from each other what matters to each side, what the obstacles are to making progress, and what possible paths forward might be.

Romberg is distinguished fellow and the director of the East Asia program at the Stimson Center.