China and Taiwan are slowly drawing closer, one shared weather report at a time

This week, Chinese and Taiwanese officials met at a hotel in Taipei where they exchanged landscape paintings and agreed to share information on weather and earthquake activity—a tiny sign of progress between two rivals who are still technically at war.

The new pact comes after a historic meeting between China and Taiwan earlier this month—the first official talks since 1949—and at first glance seems pretty underwhelming for all the recent hype over improving relations. Yet the reason the deal has been hailed as an example of “the peace and economic and social booms” created by recent cross-strait cooperation may have something to do with the possibility of China-Taiwan cooperation over regional territorial disputes.

The agreement includes sharing meteorological data collected by Taiwan’s air force on the Spratly Islands, where Taiwan controls the biggest of the islets, which are also claimed by China, Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, and Brunei. “The Taiwanese could interpret the weather cooperation as Beijing sort of tacitly acquiescing that Taiwan has a right to claim the islands,” Willy Lam, a professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, tells Quartz.

taiwan china south china sea map

Taiwan has mostly been out of the picture during regional disputes over the South China Sea: it doesn’t have China’s military weight nor the diplomatic pull of the other claimants who are part of the regional framework of ASEAN. So any acknowledgement of Taiwan’s troops on the Spratlys’ Taiping Island supports its claim. That in turn may make Taiwan’s government more receptive to political talks, something Beijing hopes to start before Taiwan’s next presidential election in 2016, in case the next government is less mainland-friendly, according to Lam.

Another possibility that’s been floated by East Asia experts is that the Spratly Islands could be an area of cooperation, perhaps eventually leading to the normalization of relations between the two. Both claim territorial rights to the islands in the name of China, based on early Chinese exploration of the islands. The problem is that both governments claim to represent China.

Thus, in some sense it’s in both their mutual interests to shore up Chinese claims to the Spratly Islands, if an agreement can be worked out between the two governments. A project to jointly develop oil and natural gas reserves in the area has also been floated. Earlier this month, a pro-China publication said that China and Taiwan should “defend the territory together.” Sharing weather forecasts might be a sign of things to come.

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