Despite recent at-sea incidents off the coast of China -- such as Chinese harassment of the U.S. research ships Impeccable (T-AGOS 23) and Victorious (T-AGOS 19), and alarmist press coverage of the Chinese anti-ship ballistic missile effort -- the probability of conflict involving China is decreasing rapidly. The threat of a Chinese assault against the island of Taiwan, some 100 miles offshore, has long been considered a threat that could ignite a major conflict in the Western Pacific.
With little fanfare, a passenger-cargo ship departed the Chinese mainland from the port of Mawei in Fujian Province on 13 July bound directly for Taiwan. The voyage -- of approximately ten hours -- marked the inauguration of regular merchant ship service between the "two Chinas." On board the New Golden Bridge II were 630 passengers plus cargo bound for "Nationalist China."
The voyage follows the mutual approval last December of direct air transport and postal services between China and Taiwan. These exchanges come as Taiwanese businessmen are investing large amounts in various mainland businesses and corporations.
The government in Beijing has claimed Taiwan since 1949, when Mao Zedong's communist forces won the Chinese civil war and Chiang Kai-shek's Nationalist regime fled to Taiwan. China has long vowed to bring Taiwan under its rule, by force if necessary, with the island being considered a province of the mainland. In the 1950s there were threats by the Nationalist regime to invade the mainland to defeat the communists, and by Beijing to assault and conquer Taiwan. Conflict, however, was limited to islands off the mainland coast, and some air engagements between Taiwanese and Chinese aircraft.
Today there are rumors that "cross strait" political and possibly even military talks will occur soon. However, earlier in July, Taiwan's senior China policy coordinator, Ms. Lai Shin-yuan, chairwoman of the Mainland Affairs Council (MAC), said while in New York that "Taiwan has no timetable" for starting political talks with China. The MAC coordinates Taiwan's policy toward China.
Ms. Lai continued, "Conditions for the leaderships of the two sides to talk about political issues have not yet matured and we are in no hurry for that." Meanwhile, officials from Taiwan and China have engaged in talks during the past year through the auspices of the Straits Exchange Foundation and the Association for Relations Across the Taiwan Straits.
Ms. Lai also explained, "Our strategic goal is to safeguard Taiwan's security and distinctive identity, and to accelerate the country's economic prosperity, as well as secure the status quo of peace and stability across the strait."
Beyond the dramatically increased civil relations between China and Taiwan, the most significant evidence of their new relationship is the Taiwan government's action in removing anti-ship barricades on its offshore island of Kinmen, also known as Quemoy. The semi-official Taiwanese Central News Agency said that the local government of Kinmen has started extracting the barricades in a sign of easing political tensions between Taiwan and China. Taiwanese military officials agreed in June to remove the barricades in preparation for a mass swim planned across the Taiwan Strait in mid-August between the southeast Chinese city of Xiamen and Kinmen.
The anti-assault barricades are rows of steel spikes rooted on cement bases, slanted at an angle to stop landing craft from putting assault troops ashore.
Some political observers have compared the rapidly changing relationship between China and Taiwan with the destruction of the Berlin Wall in 1989. The situation in the Far East, however, is considerably different than it was between East and West Germany. Both China and Taiwan are economically viable and there are no "super powers" influencing either of their political decisions in the way that the Soviet Union "abandoned" East Germany.
The future of the China-Taiwan relationship is far from clear. Still, the situation is considerably less dangerous than it was a few years ago.
-- Norman Polmar