The 5-Minute Briefing: Taiwan and China

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The Independent Online

Why is Taiwan's opposition leader in China?

Why is Taiwan's opposition leader in China?

The leader of Taiwan's opposition nationalist party, the Kuomintang, stepped on to Chinese soil yesterday, the first such visit since Mao Zedong's victorious Communist forces drove Chiang Kai-shek from the mainland in 1949. One of Taiwan's wealthiest people, Lien Chan, arrived at Nanjing, at the start of an eight-day stay aimed at lowering tensions in the long and bitter standoff between Beijing and Taiwan. On Friday he is to hold talks with Hu Jintao, China's President. For the Chinese leadership, the visit is a chance to show a more neighbourly face as it flexes its muscles on the international stage.

Why is the Taiwan trip controversial?

China has long contended that Taiwan is part of China - just like Hong Kong. It recently passed anti-secession laws requiring military action if the island makes a formal bid for independence. The problem is that Taiwan is a flourishing democracy and most of its 23 million people see no reason to abandon political freedom and follow the Communist Party dictates. Mr Chan's People First Party calls for reunion with China under negotiated conditions. A position which has made him a favourite of Beijing.

Is it a sellout for Taiwan?

The nationalist party and the Chinese government are both offering to lay aside past arguments and put the island's permanent status to one side. The only problem is that the nationalists - formerly a dictatorial power - are not in government. In fact both sides seem to be trying to undermine Chen Shui-bian, the Taiwanese President, as a way of discouraging voters from backing his push for independence. After weeks during which his supporters criticised the visit as a sellout, President Chen eventually gave it his blessing

"One country, two systems" - what's that all about?

For years both sides hid behind the sticking plaster concept of "One China" in which Taipei and Beijing espoused the same policy, while differing in its interpretation. In 1991, Taiwan formally dropped its policy of armed confrontation with China, but the election of President Chen upset all that as he fanned the flames of separatism among voters. Taiwan's push for independence has coincided unhappily with China's emergence as a global economic and military powerhouse, making the much favoured status quo of One China ever more difficult to maintain.

How high are the stakes?

Very. The Taiwan strait is one of the world's busiest shipping lanes, where some 600 tankers and container ships pass every day, to and from Japan. Interference in that traffic would have global implications - especially for the US military which has promised to defend Taiwan. There is still a way to go before China would consider launching a major assault on Taiwan and for the time being Beijing is operating at the psychological and political, rather than military, level of conflict and in the process rattling Taiwanese public opinion.