David and Goliath Try to Make Nice : Taipei and Beijing sign an unprecedented cooperation pact

Taiwan is one of America’s important trading partners and one of China’s most successful neighbors. Beijing is well aware of both these facts. Now, after eight days of delicate talks, Beijing and Taipei--both of which claim to be the government of all of China--have reached a breakthrough agreement to resolve a number of outstanding bilateral issues, including the tricky ones of airline hijackings, illegal immigrants and fishing disputes. It is the first substantive cooperative effort between China and Taiwan, which have had no formal diplomatic relations since the Nationalist Chinese forces fled the mainland in 1949.

Yes, the two governments were ever so careful to steer wide of the touchy subjects of sovereignty and reunification, major stumbling blocks in the past. Nonetheless, the accord is a significant development.

The attempt to start a political dialogue began in Singapore last year. Although Taipei remains understandably obstinate in its resistance to Beijing efforts to reunify, and the mainland stubbornly refuses to recognize the Kuomintang government on Taiwan, the growing trade and investment ties between the two are matters of mutual economic self-interest. The increased contacts have helped to foster mutual goodwill.

However, relations, which actually had been improving since the mid-1980s, were put to a severe test by a dozen hijackings of Chinese airlines to Taiwan since April, 1993. Relations deteriorated to their lowest level this spring after 24 Taiwanese tourists were killed in an arson attack in southern China; a subsequent attempt to cover up the murders fueled anti-China sentiments in Taiwan.


Image-conscious Beijing, eager to encourage more investment, trade and tourism--and to restore a sense of security about its airline service--was willing to make limited concessions to Taipei. Beijing will accept Taiwan’s authority over Chinese hijackers and its right to determine who is to be repatriated and who may remain in Taiwan for political or religious reasons. China also agreed to pay the costs of detaining and repatriating illegal immigrants from the mainland whose return had been delayed by China. As for fishing, government vessels from both sides will be allowed to mediate disputes between boats.

Not too long ago an agreement between Taipei and Beijing on any matter was unimaginable. But China and Taiwan are increasingly pragmatic. In the breakthrough pact they endorse “increasing communication” that will “eliminate misapprehensions, reduce differences and nurture trust.” That sounds like an adult formula for a better relationship between two important Pacific Rim countries with robust economies that won’t be denied.