Beijing holds seeds of cross-strait pride
By Brendan P O'Reilly
As incoming Chinese president Xi Jinping hosts the Kuomintang's Lien Chan, signs point to a perpetuation of the current amicable status quo between the People's Republic of China (PRC) and its fraternal rival, the Taiwan-based Republic of China (ROC). Indeed, there exists a potential for considerably strengthened bonds. In the last two decades, the situation around the Taiwan Strait has transformed from a dynamic of confrontation into a situation of
warming ties aided by mutual economic interest and Chinese nationalism.
As the strategic environment in East Asia is complicated by the deepening Sino-Japanese territorial dispute and the United States' pivot towards Asia, changes in the dynamic between mainland China and Taiwan have the potential for radically altering the regional political situation.
Lien Chan, the "honorary chairman" of the ruling Kuomintang in Taipei, began a political tour of the mainland last week. Lien was instrumental in thawing the once-frigid ties between the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and the Kuomintang, who were bitter rivals - and occasional allies - during China's chaotic and violent period in the first half of the 20th century. In 2005, Lien himself led the first delegation from the Kuomintang to the CCP in six decades, paving the way for increased trade, investment, and political links between the rival governments.
A press release from Lien explained his journey to the Mainland was meant to explore "the one-China framework, cross-strait peace, mutual interest and integration, and revitalization of the Zhonghua Minzu (Chinese ethnicity)". Lien also expressed a desire for deepening ties by claiming that cross-strait bonds are progressing from "one critical stage to another". 
Meanwhile, the rhetoric of Chinese Communist Party chief Xi Jinping regarding the summit was significantly more optimistic: "If brothers are of the same mind, their sharpness can cut through metal."  Xi further promised peaceful ties, while realistically acknowledging the political difficulties of improved relations:
"Safeguarding the interests of our Taiwanese compatriots and improving their well-being is the mainland's oft-repeated pledge and solemn promise of the new leaders of the CCP's central committee. Of course, we also are soberly aware that historical problems remain in cross-strait relations, and that there will be issues in the future that will require time, patience and joint efforts to resolve." 
Xi, who spent 17 formative years of his political career in Fujian province directly across from Taiwan, is particularly experienced in strengthening PRC-ROC ties. He declared that he dealt with matters relating to Taiwan "almost every day" while working in Fujian province.
Stimulus for cooperation
Merely 17 years ago, the forces of the ROC and PRC were locked in a serious standoff. The third Taiwan Strait crisis of 1996 threatened to expand into a war between the United States and the People's Republic of China. Why have ties improved so much in recent years?
The first answer, as almost always with current Chinese political developments, is economics. The mainland is now Taiwan's largest market for both exports and imports. Rapid economic expansion in the PRC has created a huge opportunity for highly profitable investment by Taiwanese companies. Tens of thousands of Taiwanese entrepreneurs have flocked to the mainland to take advantage of the rapidly expanding economy (and lower wages) in a land where the language and culture are familiar.
The internal politics of the ROC also play a significant role in warming ties. The Kuomintang favors a "One China policy" of eventually reunification with the mainland, and they have handily won the last two presidential elections in Taiwan. Even the Taiwanese opposition, the generally pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party, has been slowly building political ties with rivals on the mainland (see DPP swallows pride, hooks up with CCP, Asia Times Online, October 11, 2012.)
Finally, a sense of joint nationalism is an essential factor in the deepening ties. A recent survey found that roughly two-thirds of Taiwan's people regard China's rise as an "opportunity", while only 18.7 view this development as a "threat". The same survey found that 32.8% of respondents view themselves as Taiwanese, while not denying that they are also Chinese, 21.7% believe they are both Chinese and Taiwanese, and 22.9% identify themselves as solely Taiwanese. 
That a majority of Taiwan's residents self-identify as at least somewhat Chinese provides opportunities and risks to the important regional actors. As territorial disputes mount in the region, states that find themselves in contention with the PRC must also keep one eye on Taiwan.
Indeed, some Taiwanese politicians of the Kuomintang have been very vocal in their support for Chinese sovereignty over the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands and the South China Sea (see Taiwan Jumps into South China Sea fray, Asia Times Online, August 9, 2012). In September, coastguard vessels from Japan and Taiwan used high-power water hoses against each other in a symbolic clash near Japanese-controlled territory. 
America's tacit backing for Japan, Vietnam, and the Philippines against Chinese territorial claims risks alienating Taiwan and pushing the ROC into the open arms of Beijing. While Beijing often decries American arms sales to Taipei, there is a very real possibility that such weapons may eventually be used to undermine the interests of America's strategic allies in the region.
The sky is not the limit
If Beijing remains patient and non-confrontational, it can use sentiments of Chinese nationalism to improve relations. Instead of worrying about the growing clout of the mainland, the Taiwanese who regard themselves as somewhat Chinese may take a measure of pride in the accomplishments of their cousins across the Taiwan Strait. Achievements such as the construction of the world's most extensive high-speed rail system, and China's growing space program, can be fertile grounds for cultivating cross-strait Chinese nationalism.
Interesting enough, the Kuomintang delegation led by Lien Chan made a well-publicized trip to the Beijing Aerospace Control Center. There they met the three-person crew of China's Shenzhou IX space vessel. During the Shenzhou IX mission, the Chinese astronauts took seeds from Taiwan into orbit, in a very symbolic show of cross-strait scientific cooperation. Lien Chan's wife, Lien Fang-yu, even jokingly asked Liu Yang, China's first female astronaut, to take her into space on their next mission. 
While Lien Fang-yu may not meet the vigorous requirements of becoming an astronaut, her comment may not have been entirely playful. The PRC has publicly offered to train astronauts from Taiwan. As China's manned space program continues to gather steam - surpassing the scope of cash strapped NASA's program in the near future - the possibility of a Taiwanese astronaut on a PRC orbital could be a major propaganda boost for improved cross-straits ties. Both the CCP and the Kuomintang would stand to benefit from such a display of Chinese unity and technological prowess.
Economic, political, and psychological factors are drawing Taipei and Beijing closer. While the final resolution of the complicated issue of the relationship between the two governments is nowhere in sight, one can at least expect the current amicable and mutually beneficial relationship to continue for the medium term. As Chinese nationalism gains strength, due to both internal achievements and external disputes, there is a chance of significantly deepened cross-strait ties, and a dramatic transformation of the Asian strategic environment.