Taiwan and China
Give us your island
But here are two of our pandas
05 May 2005
THE arrival in Washington in 1972 of two giant pandas from China symbolised a turning-point in the cold war. China and America, once bitter rivals, were cosying up in a common struggle against the Soviet Union. This week China has been playing the panda card again in an attempt to resolve another problem left over from the cold-war era: its stand-off with Taiwan. But traversing the Taiwan strait is proving a more difficult journey for the animals than crossing the Pacific.
The offer of a pair of pandas was made during a tour of China at the end of April by Taiwan's opposition leader, Lien Chan. Mr Lien was the first head of Taiwan's Nationalist Party, or Kuomintang (KMT), to visit China since the KMT's defeat in the Chinese civil war in 1949. Though the KMT lost power in Taiwan in 2000 and Mr Lien himself is likely soon to give up his party job, Chinese leaders feted him like a visiting head of state (even though in China's view Taiwan is but a Chinese province controlled by an illegitimate government).
Taiwan's president, Chen Shui-bian, has reacted cautiously to China's display of bonhomie, which was expected to be repeated this weekend (minus pandas) when another opposition leader, James Soong of the People First Party, pays his own first trip to the mainland since the civil war. Mr Chen has given a personal message to Mr Soong to relay to the Chinese leadership, but has not said what it is. In Taiwan's fractious political environment, Mr Chen's tacit endorsement of the opposition's overtures to China is a breakthrough in itself. Many in his Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) who want Taiwan's permanent separation from China denounced the trips, and the panda gifts.
The pandas were only the most eye-catching of the offers publicly made by China during Mr Lien's trip. China also said it would lift restrictions on Chinese tourists visiting Taiwan, though Taiwan still imposes restrictions of its own. And it agreed to open its markets wider to Taiwanese fruit, though this would account for a minuscule proportion of Taiwan's exports. What was not said was more significant. China did not dwell on its demand for the recognition of the "one China" principle, much less reunification.
China also gave Mr Lien a chance to put his views directly to the Chinese public with a speech, in Chinese, at Peking University that was televised live nationwide. Mr Lien, to the annoyance of the DPP, avoided any reference to Taiwan's claim to statehood. But he did call for the preservation of the status quo across the strait and drew attention to China's lack of democracy. That Chinese leaders were willing to give him a platform to make such points was remarkable enough.
So what of the pandas? The mayor of Taipei, Ma Ying-jeou of the KMT (a favourite to succeed Mr Lien), has said his city's zoo would welcome them. But the government, wary of being accused of panda-hugging by supporters of Taiwanese independence, has said it will have to examine whether it is appropriate to allow the importation of such an endangered species. In fact, there have been ten offers of pandas over the years, all rejected. China's furry envoys look set for a long wait.