Although it is a flourishing democracy with an economy about the same size as ours, Australian diplomacy since 1972 has officially pretended that Taiwan does not exist. The media generally follow suit, but occasionally news seeps through, as with a report by John Garnaut in this morning’s Age.

The occasion is the first anniversary of the inauguration of Taiwan’s president, Ma Ying-jeou, whose election last year ended eight years of rule by the Democratic Progressive Party.

The DPP had presided over a tense relationship with the Chinese communist regime, flirting with a Taiwanese declaration of independence; Ma’s Kuomintang came to office on a promise of easing tensions with the mainland, a policy he refers to as “mutual non-denial”.

So far, that policy has been spectacularly successful. Economic and diplomatic ties between China and Taiwan have blossomed, China’s rhetoric has gone from threatening to cordial — promising to “make unremitting efforts to do more good and concrete things for the people of Taiwan” — and Taiwan has scaled new heights of participation on the international stage, with a Taiwanese delegation this week participating in a WHO meeting for the first time since 1971.

Ma’s opponents are not convinced, accusing him of selling out Taiwanese sovereignty. But since Taiwan has never actually claimed independence, it’s hard to point to anything Ma has given up — as he said yesterday, “nobody can tell me exactly what was lost.”

Garnaut quotes Joseph Wu, a political analyst at Chengchi University, saying that “China is believed to have 1500 missiles aimed at Taiwan”, but increased economic and social integration is a very odd way to go about preparing for a military offensive. The more Chinese firms depend on Taiwanese capital and the more visitors move from one side of the straits to the other, the more the risk of military confrontation will recede into the background.

There are a few lessons from this. Firstly, peaceful negotiation and compromise really do work. Not always, of course — some claims are just fundamentally incompatible. But what look like intractable disputes often yield surprisingly well to diplomacy once someone is willing to take the first step.

Ma put the point well: “We are practical and flexible. That is how we win the respect and sympathy of the international community… Aggression leads to nothing and earns us the name of troublemaker.”

The contrast with the recent carnage in Sri Lanka is all too apparent.

There the government took the opposite course, forsaking the peace process for a military solution. That has also been remarkably successful, but it is unlikely to have solved the underlying problems, and may well be just laying up further troubles for the future.

Further confirmation, too, that China’s rulers, although authoritarians, are not ideologues; they will happily trade principle for material advantage. Provided Taiwan does not officially dispute the assertion that the two are one country, the fact that it is in reality an independent capitalist democracy does not seem to worry them.

Both sides still hope, no doubt, to see reunification one day — on their own terms, of course. It’s hard to say whether the outbreak of peaceful cooperation brings that day closer or shifts it further away. But in the meantime, it offers real and significant benefits to both sides.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey