In 1995 and 1996, as China fired ballistic missiles across the Taiwan Strait, U.S. analysts joked that Beijing's military capabilities were so limited that an invasion would require a "million-man swim." An ambitious military modernization program has greatly improved Chinese military capabilities since then, but an even more remarkable shift has taken place in political relations with Taiwan over the last year.
Since Ma Ying-jeou's inauguration as president of Taiwan in May 2008, mainland China and Taiwan have established direct shipping, air transport, and postal links; opened Taiwan to mainland tourists; and increased financial cooperation. The two sides are now negotiating a far-reaching economic cooperation agreement. This new atmosphere has greatly reduced the chances of a cross-strait confrontation that might draw the United States and China into a military conflict. Indeed, China and Taiwan recently announced plans for 100 swimmers to swim five miles from the Chinese city of Xiamen to the Taiwan-controlled island of Jinmen. The offshore islands -- once a Cold War flashpoint -- have become a symbol of the dramatic improvement in cross-strait relations.
Leaders on both sides have expressed interest in consolidating the improved relationship by negotiating a peace agreement. The recent warming trend suggests that it is now worth thinking seriously about how a peace agreement might work and what implications it might have for the United States.
To start: Realistically, at what point could a peace agreement bridge the divide between Beijing and Taipei?
Despite improved relations, political conditions are not ripe for a permanent resolution of Taiwan's status. China still regards Taiwan as part of its territory and seeks unification, preferably achieved through peaceful means (though Beijing has refused to renounce the use of force). Taiwan's constitution retains formal links to mainland China, but the island enjoys de facto sovereignty and some political forces seek total independence.
Public opinion polls in Taiwan show that 75 to 80 percent of people on the island favor preservation of the status quo, at least for now. Beijing appears to have recognized this reality; President Hu Jintao's "eight points" speech at the end of 2008 implicitly acknowledged that an extended period of time would be needed before unification could be achieved. For now, China aims to deter Taiwanese independence while creating conditions of "peaceful development" via strengthened cross-strait economic, political, and social ties.
Although a permanent resolution of Taiwan's status remains a long-term proposition, an interim peace agreement -- trading a Taiwanese commitment not to move toward independence for a Chinese commitment not to use force -- seems increasingly possible. Taiwan's leaders have been interested in such an agreement for several years. Both presidential candidates called for negotiation of a peace agreement during the 2008 campaign. Beijing first endorsed the idea in 2005, and Chinese leaders have incorporated the call to "end the state of hostilities and negotiate a peace agreement" in their major statements on Taiwan since 2007.
This spring, Taiwan's Ma announced that he would not negotiate a peace agreement during his first term, but might pursue negotiations if elected to a second term in March 2012 (thereby guaranteeing that a peace agreement will be a major issue in Taiwan's next presidential election). This leaves a window of opportunity for negotiations before Hu steps down from his formal leadership positions that October. Even if the two sides are unable to reach a deal then, Hu may seek to consolidate his political legacy by establishing principles that would guide future negotiations with Taiwan.
Although formal negotiations are not on the immediate horizon, both sides have conducted internal research on what a cross-strait peace agreement might look like and have begun to discuss the issue in cross-strait academic meetings.