Thursday, February 22, 2007

Divide and Conquer?

Panda Diplomacy
Jonathan Adams
Newsweek International, May 16, 2005

The incentives were unconventional: two cuddly pandas, a more open Chinese market for Taiwan's vast fruit crop, hordes of mainland tourists eager to spend vacation dollars in China's "renegade province." These are just some of the goodies Beijing offered the island last week during Kuomintang Chairman Lien Chan's landmark visit to China. Most mainlanders viewed Lien's visit, along with the follow-up trip of another opposition politician, People First Party Chairman James Soong, as a symbolic boost to the idea of unification. But the Taiwanese had a decidedly mixed reaction to the twin dramas. Opposition-party supporters hailed the trips as a breakthrough after years of icy hostility between the two sides, while backers of President Chen Shui-bian's Democratic Progressive Party scoffed at what they called a dramatic exercise in public relations.

If China's latest overtures are a ploy to isolate Chen by bolstering his political rivals, though, the strategy seems to be working. "People are looking to see some kind of ice-breaking process take place across the strait so that peace can be maintained," says Andrew Yang from the Chinese Council of Advanced Policy Studies in Taipei. The DPP's popularity dipped 7 percentage points after Lien embarked on his trip, according to one recent poll, and last week Chen's approval rating sank to an abysmal 34 percent.

Still, Beijing's tactics could backfire. The Taiwanese remain proud of their democracy and would like to rally around Chen as the island's elected leader if China continues to refuse to engage his government or cooperates too closely with the KMT to oust the DPP. And Soong's current visit to the mainland could also revive Chen's fortunes. Once an ally of Lien, Soong recently reached a 10-point consensus on China policy with Chen, and is seen as a possible envoy between Taipei and Beijing. Soong has downplayed such talk, but on the eve of his departure last week he hinted that he could float a new formula for unofficial talks between the two sides, which have been stalled since 1999.

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