BEIJING (Reuters) - Both Taiwan presidential candidates promise better ties with China, but whoever wins, chances of a dramatic or quick thaw in ties are unlikely as sensitive political problems will be tricky to tackle.
Nationalist candidate Ma Ying-jeou, the election front-runner, is seen as being more sympathetic to China, and many believe a President Ma would move fast to boost economic, trade and possibly political ties with Beijing.
Victory for his rival from the pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), Frank Hsieh, could make a rapprochement harder, despite Hsieh promising a much more relaxed China policy than President Chen Shui-bian.
In a fresh example of their different approaches, both candidates criticized the recent violence in Tibet on Saturday, but only Hsieh tied it to Taiwan’s situation.
“As we look at Tibet, we must think about our own fate,” said Hsieh.
Steve Tsang, Director of the Taiwan Studies Programme at Oxford University, said: “I think in the medium to long term you would see significant improvements in the relationship (if Ma wins), at least by way of easing of tensions.”
While a Ma administration may move fast to lift the ban on direct transport and trade, in place since Nationalist forces fled to Taiwan in 1949 at the end of a civil war, a presidential summit is unlikely to happen soon.
“On those kinds of visits you can’t really fudge the protocol issues. China will be perfectly happy to accept the head of Taiwan’s administration to go to China. But not as president of Taiwan, not a 21 gun salute. There’s no way they’re going to accept that,” Tsang said.
Beijing will also probably not dismiss a President Hsieh out of hand, despite his background as a Taiwan independence supporter and ally of Chen, who has made a habit of angering China with his attempts to de-Sinify the island.
“I think Frank Hsieh will try to separate political disputes from economics and trade. He will push more on the economics side,” said Chen Mu-min, professor at National Chung Hsing University in Taiwan.
“But I don’t think he will make much compromise on the political issue. He wants to find an alternative to the so-called One China principle. But I’m not sure if Beijing would accept that,” he added.
The “one China” principle says the island and the mainland are part of a single sovereign country. Taiwan has rejected “one China” as an unfair precondition.
Still, Beijing is taking a much more softly-softly, sophisticated approach towards Taiwan than in previous years, having witnessed those efforts backfire dramatically, analysts said.
China has never renounced the use of force to bring self-ruled Taiwan under its control.
In 1996, China lobbed missiles into the Taiwan Strait to try and intimidate the island’s voters not to vote for Lee Teng-hui, who Beijing despised for his perceived pro-independence sympathies. Lee won in a landslide.
This time, there is no obvious sabre rattling, no overt military maneuvers.
And if Ma wins, China could offer an olive branch in the form of a cut in military forces sited opposite the island, said Dafydd Fell, lecturer in Taiwan studies at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London.
“There could be some sort of reduction in the number of missiles facing Taiwan, maybe a moving of them inland. Those threats do upset the Taiwanese,” Fell said.
Yet don’t expect to see a breakthrough on the political front, or Taiwan suddenly accepting China’s “one country, two systems” model which is used in Hong Kong and Macau, Fell added.
“Political issues will take a long time, unless the PRC offers a new kind of model,” he said, referring to China’s formal name, the People’s Republic of China.
Editing by John Chalmers and Jerry Norton