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China likely to reject Lai's cross-strait exchange proposal: Scholars

05/20/2024 11:00 PM
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CNA photo May 20, 2024
CNA photo May 20, 2024

Taipei, May 20 (CNA) Beijing is likely to reject or even respond with "fire and fury" to President Lai Ching-te's (賴清德) proposal of resuming cross-Taiwan Strait exchanges in tourism and education, according to scholars.

In his inaugural address on Monday, Lai called on China to engage in cooperation with Taiwan's government, proposing that it could "start from the resumption of tourism on a reciprocal basis, and enrollment of degree students in Taiwanese institutions."

Wen-Ti Sung (宋文笛), a Taipei-based fellow with the Atlantic Council's Global China Hub, said that it is "unlikely" for Beijing to have a positive response to Lai's proposal and instead "Beijing will meet it with fire and fury."

"Beijing has never found Lai Ching-te to be to Beijing's liking. And Beijing wants to use pre-emptive pressuring tactics to establish the terms of subsequent cross-strait negotiations," Sung said.

The Chinese authorities will probably look at the possibility of cross-strait exchanges in the way that they have mentioned it before, but they will not accept Lai's proposal, said Ian Chong (莊嘉穎), an associate professor at the Department of Political Science of the National University of Singapore.

"Because in the PRC's eyes, Taiwan is a regional government and therefore undeserving of any such parity," Chong said, implying that the People's Republic of China (PRC) will not respond on this proposal at the central government level.

In August 2019, China halted independent travel to Taiwan, citing the strained state of cross-strait relations; and in 2020, both group travel to Taiwan and enrollment of Chinese degree students to institutions in Taiwan were also suspended. These measures are still in effect.

Taiwan, on the other hand, allows its citizens to study in or travel independently to China, but not in tour groups arranged by Taiwanese travel agencies.

Messages to both sides of the Pacific

While both scholars are pessimistic about China's response to Lai's proposal, they respectively think that Lai has extended goodwill -- at least to a certain degree -- to Beijing, and reassurance to Washington.

Lai expressed an interest and willingness to work together with China toward common prosperity, indicating that he thinks both sides can work toward becoming friends, Sung said.

"He is being clear-eyed about the challenges in current [cross-strait] relations; so, he's proposing baby steps rather than extending any major olive branch at the moment," said Sung.

Chong said that Lai's mention of his commitment to "maintain the status quo" in his speech is a move that will be welcomed by the United States, which does not support Taiwan independence.

"There have been some worries in some forces in Washington that Lai will push for [Taiwan] independence in a way that is overly provocative -- I doubt that's going to happen," the Singaporean scholar said.

In 2017, when serving as premier, Lai described himself as a "pragmatic worker for Taiwan independence," but as predicted, he did not mention this in his inaugural address.

Tsai Ing-wen 2.0

Lai reiterated that he would uphold the "Four Commitments" -- an approach to cross-strait policy proposed by his predecessor Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) -- and proposed his own "Four Pillars of Peace action plan."

Sung stated that Lai's intention is to project consistency and stability, especially "framing himself as a Tsai Ing-wen 2.0" on both cross-strait and foreign policy.

"If there's a difference to be made [between Lai and past presidents] ... I think Lai makes less mention about shared political future with China in the future tense," he said.

Meanwhile, Tang Shao-cheng (湯紹成), a research fellow at the National Chengchi University's Institute of International Relations, said that the section about cross-strait relations in Lai's speech primarily followed Tsai's approach, and the assertion that the two sides of the strait are not subordinate to each other is similar to Tsai's stance.

While the fundamental disagreements between both sides remain difficult to resolve, Tang said that Lai's proposal regarding cross-strait tourism and education reflects a gesture of goodwill.

Lai's speech overall conveyed a mix of commitments and goodwill, he said.

(By Liu Kuan-ting, Matt Yu and Sunny Lai)

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