Giant Gift: Tuan Tuan and Yuan Yuan settle in at their new home at the Taipei Zoo. The giant pandas, a gift to Taiwan from China, have names that combine to spell "reunion." (Pool photo)
By Calum MacLeod USA TODAY
BEIJING — A pair of pandas at the Taipei Zoo go on public display for the first time today to celebrate the Chinese New Year. And they're the cuddliest sign of warmer diplomatic ties between China and Taiwan.
The pandas were a gift from China and have names that combine to spell "reunion." They were a symbolic gesture to Taiwan's president, who was elected last year urging more economic ties while promising not to push independence for the self-ruled island.
Last month, daily direct flights began for the first time from Beijing to Taipei. In November, the rival governments agreed to open shipping and postal routes that had been blocked for six decades.
Tensions still remain, but the recent changes make this potential flash point a lower priority for President Obama, Taiwanese political analyst Antonio Chiang says. "Taiwan is less of a security issue now that we have better relations between China and Taiwan," Chiang says. "Both the USA and (China) will be preoccupied with their own problems this year, and Taiwan seems like a side issue."
Still, Beijing issued a major policy paper last week warning Washington that U.S. arms sales to Taiwan remain a "serious harm to Sino-U.S. relations."
Treasury Secretary-designate Timothy Geithner warned that Obama could take a tougher stance with China over trade policy.
China keeps at least 1,300 missiles pointed at Taiwan as a constant threat if it seeks formal independence.
"Cross-strait relations are better than they ever have been, but there are still huge amounts of suspicion on both sides," says J. Bruce Jacobs, a professor of China-Taiwan relations at Australia's Monash University.
A formal end to hostilities remains years off, but current relations "are better than ever," says George Tsai, a political science professor at Taipei's Chinese Culture University. "All the signs are that the direction is positive. … There is still a long way to go."
The changes began in March when Taiwan elected President Ma Ying Jeou to succeed Chen Shui Bian, an ardent supporter of independence. Chen, who was president for eight years, is currently in jail awaiting trial on corruption and money-laundering charges.
"Beijing feels, correctly or incorrectly, that Ma is more committed to eventual union between the mainland and Taiwan," Jacobs says.
Ma's administration is pushing for stronger economic and cultural links with China. In addition to the pandas and direct flights, 61,000 Chinese tourists have visited Taiwan since last summer, when Ma opened the door to tour groups.
Cui Wentao, a Beijing travel agent who visited in June, says Taiwan's scenery "was not as attractive as I had hoped, and their Palace Museum is much smaller than ours. But all Chinese dream of going to Taiwan. It's part of China, and feels like visiting one's hometown."
Cui, 30, plans to send her parents on a tour this year.
Tourism is the best way to improve relations, says Yao Daguang, head of the Taiwanese travel agents association, who hosted a recent fair in Beijing to attract visitors.
"We thought 3,000 tourists would come every day, but it was only 300 at first," he says.
Many Chinese "don't understand Taiwan and worry it will be dangerous to visit," Yao says.
That view was amplified after thousands of Taiwanese demonstrated in November accusing Ma's government of selling out Taiwanese sovereignty and laid siege to the hotel where a visiting Chinese envoy was attending a banquet.
Chinese President Hu Jintao, in a speech Dec. 31, raised the goal of a peace agreement and did not repeat Beijing's usual threat of violence if Taiwan declares independence. Hu did maintain the condition of "One China."
Most Taiwanese don't want that. A recent poll in the pro-nationalist magazine Commonwealth showed that 80% of Taiwan adults surveyed oppose becoming part of China.
Contributing: Associated Press
【2009/1/26 USA TODAY】報紙原貌