BEIJING // Talks on controlling epidemics and jointly developing medicines might not seem controversial, but nonetheless protesters have been out in the capital of Taiwan this week voicing concerns over the cementing of economic links between the island and mainland China.
Despite the protests, yesterday an agreement that will see China and Taiwan adopt the same standards for the clinical trial of drugs and exchange information over disease outbreaks was signed by envoys representing the mainland and the island.
Coming after the signing in June of a wide-ranging free-trade deal, and many other smaller pacts, the agreement is the latest sign of a thaw in relations that dates back to the 2008 election when the Nationalist Party's Ma Ying-jeou was picked as president. Yesterday's was the 15th commercial agreement with China signed since Mr Ma took power.
Ties have grown on multiple levels. A July 2008 travel agreements saw the number of mainlanders visiting Taiwan grow to almost one million last year, as four million Taiwanese travelled in the opposite direction. Beijing has opened a "Taiwan street" featuring wares from the island, while flights between the mainland and Taiwan have increased in frequency.
At the same time Taiwan has looked to strengthen its hand militarily against the mainland, which claims the island as its own. Earlier this year, the island signed a US$6.4 billion (Dh23.5bn) defence deal with the United States that equipped Taipei with mine-hunting ships, Black Hawk helicopters and Patriot missiles, much to the mainland's anger.
Mr Ma's policy of edging closer to Beijing economically in the hope China's boom will yield financial dividends for Taiwan is, many on the mainland hope, the start of an eventual political unification, more than six decades from when the nationalist Kuomintang of Chiang Kai-shek fled to the island as Mao Zedong's communists took control of the mainland.
As China's clout has increased, it has isolated Taipei diplomatically to the extent that Taiwan has formal ties with just 23 nations, even if many more countries have foreign missions on the island. Taiwan's diplomatic isolation has also made the signing of free-trade pacts in the region more difficult, and some on the island have said stronger trade links with the mainland could ease this problem.
According to Jia Qingguo, professor and associate dean in Peking University's Centre for International and Strategic Studies and a board member of the National Taiwan Studies Association, the economic strength of the mainland has "functioned as a source of attraction to Taiwan".
"It does not want to be left out," he said.
These growing economic ties "will be helpful for the eventual peaceful reunification across the Taiwan Strait", Mr Jia added, as they would pave the way for dialogue over political unification.
Yet hurdles remain, among them the views of the Taiwanese public. Polls show support for maintaining the current de facto independence has grown and in recent municipal elections, the opposition Democratic Progressive Party, suspicious of closer ties to Beijing, outshone Mr Ma's KMT. If Mr Ma wins the 2012 presidential election, he is likely to face pressure from Beijing to enter discussions over political unification, according to Wong Yiuchung, a professor of political science at Lingnan University in Hong Kong and cross-strait analyst.
Beijing's hopes of incorporating Taiwan would be dealt a heavy blow if Mr Ma lost, and such an outcome is by no means unlikely.
"Many people will question whether the 2012 presidential election will be a sure win for President Ma," said Mr Wong. "You can sense mainland China will try everything to help Ma Ying-jeou to win the election."
That means stronger trade co-operation is likely, with Beijing hoping an economic boost on the island will convince residents of the importance of stronger ties.
Whatever happens in the next two years, no one is expecting mainland China, where newspapers often refer to the island as "China's Taiwan province", to give up its claims. Aside from Taiwan's strategically important location near trade routes, a strong emotional argument resonates with mainlanders, even if many on the island take a different view. "It's politically highly important," Mr Jia said of unification.
"During contemporary history, China used to be a victim of foreign aggression and invasion. Unification is a symbol of China's revival and re-emergence as a strong and prosperous country."