Lin Chu-Chia, deputy minister of Taiwan's Mainland Affairs Council

Since Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou came into office in 2008, Taiwan and China have shelved political discussions, instead focusing on strengthening their economic ties. 

It’s unclear whether this week’s visit of the top Taiwan affairs official from the mainland has changed all that. 

After Wang Yu-chi, director of Taiwan’s Mainland Affairs Council Director, spent two hours yetserday with Zhang Zhijun, minister of China’s Taiwan Affairs Office, a spokesman said the mainland Chinese official called for shoring up the “political foundation” on which the talks were based. 

A Taiwan spokesman later denied that this issue arose, apparently reflecting Taiwan’s desire to keep the focus squarely on an issue less likely to rankle already jittery opponents of closer ties with the mainland: the economic relationship that is worth $200 billion in trade annually and much more in investment. 

In a private meeting with journalists from 19 countries last week, including this reporter, Taiwan’s second in command for mainland affairs said this week’s landmark discussions would not deviate from the economic track. 

“So far we think that it’s too early to have any formal political talks with mainland China, but the economic relationship is very important,” said Lin Chu-Chia, who holds a Ph.D. in economics from the University of California, Los Angeles

High on the agenda would be talks about the establishment of mutual representative offices, something like embassies or consulates to deal with issues affecting their respective citizens. More than 5 million Taiwanese have dealings on the mainland, while nearly 3 million mainland Chinese visited Taiwan last year. 

The officials would also discuss allowing mainland Chinese travelers to take transfer flights in Taiwan, Dr. Lin said. This would be huge for the development of an “aerotropolis” at Taoyuan airport and would represent a major step for cross-strait aviation, which just opened in 2010. Before, travelers between the two locales had to transfer in Hong Kong.

Politics, meanwhile, would not be on the agenda, Dr. Lin said, adding a statement that seemed to address a recent Chinese foreign ministry assertion that “the future of Taiwan should be decided by all Chinese people, including Taiwan,” which outraged many Taiwanese. 

“Taiwan’s future for sure should be decided by 23 million of its citizens only. Our future should be decided by ourselves. However, the economic relationship with the mainland is still important as well. So, I mean, business is business. The political situation is the political situation,” Dr. Lin said. 

He was confident that this position resonated with the Taiwanese people, even after the Sunflower Movement in which students in March forcibly occupied parliament for 24 days in protest of a service-trade agreement that would open both economies for further investment. The protests delayed the visit by Mr. Zhang, which was originally scheduled for April. It is the first time a mainland official of his rank has visited Taiwan in an official capacity. 

Though some indicate that they could change their minds in the future, more than 80 percent of Taiwanese people currently support maintaining the political “status quo” in which both sides agree that there is one China, but each maintains its own interpretation of what that means, Dr. Lin said. 

And even after the protests, government polls show that more than 60 percent of Taiwanese were in favor of the Mr. Zhang’s visit, he added.  

Demonstrators gathered at Taoyuan International Airport to protest the Wang-Zhang meetings, asking for talks to be suspended until a law is passed in Taiwan to monitor the relationship. Many say that Taiwan shouldn’t be so keen to integrate with a country that has 1,000 missiles pointed in its direction. 

Dr. Lin said in last week’s meeting with reporters that Taiwan has told the mainland repeatedly that its people would be hesitant to support peace talks at gunpoint, but he noted that it would be practically impossible for Chinese President Xi Jinping or any Chinese leader domestically to appear weak on Taiwan by renouncing the use of force, especially so early in his term. 

One main priority in the talks would be advancing a service-trade agreement, which would open banking, e-commerce, telecommunications and other sectors and represents the next step in a trade agreement enacted between the mainland and Taiwan in 2010. Both signs signed the deal June 21 of last year, but it has yet to be ratified by the Taiwanese legislature. 

Dr. Lin said the Sunflower Movement was less about the agreement itself and more about the process by which it was passed. Many saw the negotiations as a “black box” that should have been more open. The legislature is currently debating a “supervision law” that would require more transparency in future negotiations.

“As soon as we pass the supervision law, we think and we believe that we should have a very good opportunity to pass the service trade agreement,” Dr. Lin said. 

As managing editor of Global Atlanta, Trevor has spent 15+ years reporting on Atlanta’s ties with the world. An avid traveler, he has undertaken trips to 30+ countries to uncover stories on the perils...