The Trends of Cross-Straits Relations in a Changing East Asia | 作者: Xiu Chunping | 时间: 2015-03-10 | 责编: Li Minjie
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Xiu Chunping[1]


The repercussions of high-profile “returning to Asia” and implementation of the Asia Pacific rebalancing strategy by the US has been felt in Asia. The US has openly given support to Japan, the Philippines and Vietnam to challenge China and secretly instigated some ASEAN and South Asian countries to go against China. The situation in Asia Pacific has suddenly turned turbulent and lumpy. The situation in Taiwan Straits, once as the barometer of regional situation, has also attracted attention. In the time of various strategic powers contending with each other and the situation in East Asia undergoing complex changes, whether the cross-Straits relations will remain in the track of peaceful development and whither it will go have become a new perspective to study the cross-Straits relations.


 The Roots of the Changing Situation in East Asia


At the end of the 20th century, the vigorous development of East Asia has attracted the attention from all over the world. Especially since the 21st century, driven by the rapid rise of China, the “10+1” and “10+3” trade and economic cooperation in East Asia have become more substantive. Free trade negotiations among China, Japan and South Korea were sped up and the regional economic integration in East Asia was taking shape. Thanks to its huge market, strong growth, unlimited potential and bright prospect, East Asia has not only led the shift of focus of world economic growth, but also reshaped the world economic structure by various elements including the market, resources, wealth and productive forces. Meanwhile, the rapid development of East Asia, especially the rapid rise of China, has changed the old regional pattern of interests, the parties both from within and outside have come to compete fiercely for the new interests as stakeholders. The situation in East Asia began to undergo complex changes, with strategic competition being more highlighted and the once-quiet disputes over the sovereignty of some islands in the East China Sea and South China Sea becoming more and more heated. The overall trend of regional development has turned from cooperation to competition.

Some people say the current situation stems from the breaking of the original regional balance by the rapid rise of China. Since the reform and opening up, China has sustained rapid economic growth and constant improvement of comprehensive national strength, international status and international influence. China has gradually stepped into the center of the international stage. The rapid development of China has injected new impetus to world peace and development, but it also stirred feelings of discomfort or even worry of some countries. Since the beginning of the 21st century, the Chinese economy has overtaken France, Britain, Germany, Japan and has become the second largest one in the world, only next to the US. As a result, China has increasingly become the focus of various disputes. The progress in aerospace science and technology, speeding-up of military modernization and implementation of maritime strategy of China have brought about concerns from the outside world. It is undeniable that the rapid development of China would disturb the existing strategic structure in East Asia, affect the given interests of some powers in the region and make some small and medium-sized countries in the region feel worried. It is reasonable that these different countries have their own appropriate responses and reactions.

However, it is the US who is the initiator to push the Asia Pacific region from the overall pursuit of win-win cooperation to sub-regional geopolitical competition, especially when it advocated “returning to Asia” in high profile and vigorously implemented the Asia Pacific rebalancing strategy. Although the United States has never publicly acknowledged the rebalancing strategy is aimed against China, its focus is self-evident. The US announced that it would deploy 60% of its naval forces to the Asia Pacific region by 2020. It put forward the AirSea Battle concept, strengthened the alliance network in the region, urging its East Asian allies to increase investment in defense and share the burden of “safeguarding the regional security”. It gave nod to Japan in lifting ban on “collective self-defense” and stands on the side of Japan in the China-Japan Dispute over the Diaoyu Islands. It sided with Vietnam and the Philippines in their dispute with China over sovereignty of some islands and reefs in the South China Sea, provided military assistance to the Philippines, and strengthened military ties with Vietnam. It actively promoted the Trans-Pacific Strategic Economic Partnership Agreement (TPP) negotiations, strengthening its leading power over economic development in Asia Pacific and disrupting the process of economic integration in the region. The above-mentioned moves are all taken against China, in order to circumvent the challenges of a rising China to its world power status and existing strategic interests.

The act of the United States has had important influence on some East Asian countries. Due to historical and geopolitical reasons, Japan is even more worried about the rise of China and feels worse to see China catch up and take over. As an island country poor in resources, Japan is worried that a rising China may expand its influence at the sea and pose a threat to Japan’s security interests. Therefore, it has actively cooperated with the United States in implementing Asia Pacific rebalancing strategy, adopted a tough policy towards China in the bilateral relations and taken provocative action over the Diaoyu Islands issue. After Abe Shinzo came to power, his confrontational stance towards China is even more explicit. In April 2014, Japan adopted the “three principles guiding transfer of defense equipment”, replacing the old “three principles guiding arms exports” that had been in place for 47 years. In July, Japan revised constitutional interpretation, lifting the ban on exercising the right of collective self-defense. Japan has also actively got involved in the South China Sea issue, urging the Southeast Asian countries to confront China. The Philippines has been long coveting some Chinese islands in South China Sea, and after being encouraged by words like “the US will always stand with Manila”, it becomes restless and often makes a scene in the Huangyan Island. Vietnam believed that it had got the support of the US and Japan, and could take the opportunity to pick a quarrel with China. It interfered in China’s offshore oil and gas exploration operations in Xisha by employing dangerous means, and indulged the domestic anti-Chinese violence. Some other Asia Pacific countries are willing to take a ride in China’s economic development, but they also have hidden concern over China’s increasing power, and would passively accept a regional structure characterized as mutual check and balance of big powers.

To some extent, the complex change of situation in East Asia is an inevitable result of the adjustment of existing world structure and it may last for quite a long time in future. The competition among major strategic powers will persist until the new strategic balance is in place. For China, on the way from a big power to a major world power, the growing pains brought by adjustment of strategic and interest pattern can hardly be avoided. The main task and challenge for China in the process of peaceful development will be reducing various pressures and disputes and working for a new global order and structure by win-win cooperation instead of zero sum confrontation. It is relieving to see that in the past 10 years, the peaceful development and win-win cooperation in East Asia has resulted in fruitful achievements, and the tremendous common interests of regional countries will play an important role in promoting regional cooperation and maintaining regional stability. At present, the interests of strategic powers in East Asia are highly integrated, excessive competition and sharp contradictions will not only damage the interests of all parties concerned, but also may lead to uncontrollable confrontation and conflict. Therefore, the parties concerned will pay more attention to controlling the intensity of competition, or even make necessary concession to avoid the risk of conflict and damage to their own interests. In the future, cooperation and development will still be the overriding theme in East Asia and the regional disputes will be in control.


The Impacts on Cross-Straits Relations


To some extent the changing situation in East Asian has increased the strategic pressure on China in the surrounding area and has also unavoidably brought negative impact on the cross-Straits relations.

It has long been recognized that the Taiwan issue is a “chip” to balance China by certain external forces, and it has been played in different means to some different extent in the different stages of cross-Straits relations. At the beginning of the 1990’s, there was a good momentum of development in the cross-Straits relations, the Association for Relations across the Taiwan Straits (ARATS) and the Straits Exchange Foundation (SEF) began to get in touch and establish a consultation mechanism. In 1993, Mr. Wang Daohan and Mr. Gu Zhenfu, the respective leaders of the ARATS and the SEF, held the historic “Wang-Gu talks” in Singapore. The prospects for the development of the cross-Straits relations seemed encouraging.  However, with the United States adjusting its Taiwan Policy, allowing Li Denghui to visit the US and deliver a separatist speech, the momentum was reversed, and the cross-Straits relations was stuck in a state of tension. In 2000, Chen Shuibian won the local election in Taiwan as candidate for the Democratic Progressive Party. In the face of strong pressure from the Chinese mainland opposing Taiwan independence, Chen Shuibian in his inaugural speech made public commitment to “Four Noes”.[2] But encouraged by the then US President George W. Bush’s promise “to help defend Taiwan at any cost”, the Chen Shuibian administration soon abandoned its commitment, and was wantonly engaged in separatist activities for “Taiwan independence”, eventually leading to a serious deterioration in relations across the Taiwan Straits and a highly tense situation in the region. As long as the Taiwan problem is not solved, it will always be a chip used by external forces to check China.

At present, there are still separatist forces advocating “Taiwan independence” in Taiwan island and there are also political forces unwilling to see reunification or at least unwilling to see immediate reunification. However, with power gap widening across the Taiwan Straits, in order to resist the great pressure from the Chinese mainland for reunification, the political forces resisting reunification or in favor of “Taiwan independence” might be more active in asking or relying on the external forces like the US to balance the Chinese mainland, which actually resonates with the intention of the external forces to use Taiwan issue to distract and balance China. In this sense, Taiwan issue is a cheap and effective chip for the external forces to check and balance China. However, the Taiwan issue stands for the core interest of China, and has a bearing on China’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. The anti-secession and anti–independence stand on the Taiwan issue by the Chinese Government has been firm and unwavering. Therefore, the external forces have to think twice about the related risk and cost, and calculate carefully on the tactics including the timing and degree when they do want to use the Taiwan chip, which also explains why the cross-Straits situation remains relatively stable in the turbulent East Asian situation.

The external forces can affect the cross-Straits relations only through some factors in the Taiwan Island. In the current situation, the ruling authorities of Taiwan are the focal point for the external forces to exert influence. As long as the Taiwan authorities are unwilling to jointly promote the national reunification with the Chinese mainland, or even seeking “Taiwan independence” or “de facto independence”, the external forces would have space to manipulate, and affect the attitude of the Taiwan authorities on the cross-Straits relationship and its mainland policy to a considerable extent.

Generally speaking, the impacts of the current East Asian situation on cross-Straits relations are manifested in the following three aspects.

First, the maneuvering space of the Ma Ying-jeou regime on cross-Straits and international relations has been squeezed. After Ma Ying-jeou came to power, although he was clearly opposed to “Taiwan independence”, recognized the “1992 consensus”, he still emphasized “no immediate reunification, no independence, no use of force” policy under the influence of various factors. In order to consolidate his ruling status, maintain the de facto existence of the “Republic of China” and expand the survival and development space of Taiwan, the Ma Ying-jeou regime carried out the so-called “keeping close with the US, harmonious with the mainland, and friendly with Japan” policy. On the one hand, it actively improves and develops cross-Straits relations, on the other hand, it strives to win trust and support of the US and to maintain friendly relations with Japan in order to seek maximum benefits. It benefited significantly when this policy was accepted by each party concerned when the Sino-US and Sino-Japan relations were sound. Since 2008, apart from his own willingness and domestic need, the Ma Ying-jeou regime’s ability to actively improve cross-Straits relations is also based on another important condition—trust, approval and support of the Americans. In other words, when the Sino-US relationship is in good shape, the Ma Ying-jeou administration gets a larger space to win the US approval and support in dealing with cross-Straits relations and to have more options in formulating the mainland policy. But when the China-US relationship is faced with more tense competitions and China-Japan relationship is mired in more contradictions, Taiwan is caught in a two-way squeeze and has very limited policy options. For the Ma Ying-jeou administration, the cross-Straits relations are important, but the relationship with the US relations is crucial. After considering all the factors concerned, the Ma Ying-jeou regime hopes to play a role in Asia Pacific rebalancing strategy to strengthen the relations with the United States and enhance the status of Taiwan. In April 2014, the “Vice Minister of Defense” of the Taiwan authorities Xia Liyan said publicly in a seminar hosted by the Center for a New American Security (CNAS) that “Taiwan is willing to share the burden of rebalancing strategy of the US”, and “Taiwan has the capacity to do more. If the United States would embrace Taiwan, it will only benefit from it”.[3] Of course, the Taiwan authorities also don’t want to stimulate the mainland and put the cross-Straits relations in danger. As for the practical problems like the East China Sea and South China Sea issues, Taiwan not only has to fight for its own interests, but also is afraid of offending the United States and Japan, not to mention avoid confronting the mainland. Thus, the maneuvering space in the cross-Straits and international activities of the Ma Ying-jeou regime has been greatly squeezed.

Secondly, the mainland policy of the Ma Ying-jeou authorities tends to be more conservative. The changes in East Asian situation have not only squeezed maneuvering space of the Taiwan authorities, but also greatly increased its scruples in promoting the development of cross-Straits relations. On the one hand, with the United States and Japan making bigger efforts to check China and growing more wary of closer cross-Straits relations, they became more involved in interfering in or even thwarting further development of the relations across the Taiwan Straits, and trying to influence the mainland policy of the Taiwan authorities. On the other hand, the Ma Ying-jeou administration attaches great importance to its relations with the US, and regards trust and support of the United States as the top priority. In the time of China-US competition, Ma Ying-jeou has shown a tendency of “leaning towards left rather than right” in the cross-Straits relations, and constantly trying to figure out the real attitude of the United States on various issues. In this background, although Ma Ying-jeou does not want to go backward in handling cross-Straits relations, he does not dare to rush forward, and instead to be more cautious, in order to maintain the stable and friendly atmosphere but avoid further substantive progress. Since 2014, it has become more apparent that the mainland policy of the Ma Ying-jeou administration turns to be more conservative. For example, it avoids answering the call for opening cross-Straits political dialogue and negotiation, as proposed by the mainland, and has been stressing that “the timing for political dialogue is still not ripe”.  In the cross-Straits economic and trade relations that is less sensitive politically and more beneficial to Taiwan, the Taiwan authorities also scales down the promotion significantly. In June 2013, the Cross-Straits Service Trade Agreement was signed, and it is viewed as an important step to deepen cross-Straits economic and trade relations. However, more than one year has passed when it still has not been approved by the “Legislative Yuan”. The main reason is that the DPP is making troubles, but it is also a fact that the Ma Ying-jeou administration tends to sit idle after the anti service trade movement in the Island.

Thirdly, the regional tension and strategic maneuvering by big powers is exerting a subtle influence on cross-Straits relations. The conservative tendency of the mainland policy of Taiwan authorities has inevitably reflected in the cross-Straits relations, and has brought more uncertainties to the peaceful development of cross straits relations. When the United States and Japan are pressuring the Taiwan authorities to contain the development of cross-Straits relations, they are also providing the Taiwan side with some opportunity to gain substantial interest, in order to keep Taiwan on their side. For example, Japan made concessions on the fishing rights issue and signed fishery agreement with Taiwan. At the same time, the Ma Ying-jeou administration takes more into account the position of the United States in making statement concerning the Chinese mainland so as to avoid American suspicion. The repetition of these incidents is bound to affect the sound interaction and further development of cross-Straits relations. At present, the mutual political trust across the strait is not sufficient, and the political differences are huge, which limits the deepening of cross-Straits relations to a large extent, and also hampers the solution of some problems, like the “international space” issue to which the Taiwan side pays much attention. With these problems unsolved, it will be hard to see the further breakthrough in the development of cross-Straits relations. From this perspective, the effect of the external forces like the US and Japan driving a wedge, undermining the trust between two sides and hindering the cross-Straits relations should not be underestimated.


The Trends of Cross-Straits Relations


The complex situation in East Asia will last for some time in the future and the cross-Straits relations will be stable on the whole while the development will be slowed down. At the same time, since the political situation in Taiwan Island is vulnerable, the possibility of setbacks in the development of cross-Straits relations cannot be completely ruled out.

The cross-Straits relationship is expected to maintain the mo-mentum of peaceful development, which is mainly based on the following factors.

The first is the firm resolve and ability of the Chinese mainland to maintain the peaceful development of cross-Straits relations, which is an important guarantee. To solve the Taiwan problem and to realize the reunification of the motherland is the sacred historic mission of the Chinese Government. This mission is closely related to the Chinese Dream of rejuvenation of the Chinese nation as put forward and vigorously promoted by the new generation of Chinese leaders. “The 18th National Congress of the CPC put forward that the general task of building socialism with Chinese characteristics is the realization of socialist modernization and the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation. This general task determines the overall goal of Taiwan affairs under the new situation is to realize the reunification of our motherland in the process of realizing the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation. The Chinese dream and the future and destiny of the compatriots across the Taiwan Straits are closely integrated, to achieve this goal is to persistently promote the peaceful development of cross-Straits relations.” [4]  The new leaders of China have repeatedly indicated the resolve to promote the peaceful development of cross-Straits relations. General Secretary Xi Jinping has repeatedly stressed that “the peaceful development of cross-Straits relations is the right way leading to the peaceful reunification”, “we will unswervingly adhere to the right road of peaceful development of cross-Straits relations, adhere to the policies and initiatives that benefit the compatriots on both sides of the Strait to have cross-Straits relations making progress consistently”. [5]

This policy is firm and unshakable, and except for some extreme circumstances, it will not succumb to political changes in the island of Taiwan or the interference of external forces. In the coming period, China will face increasing external pressure in the implementation of the national development strategy and realization of Chinese Dream of national rejuvenation. Under these circumstances, it becomes more important to maintain the peaceful development of cross-Straits relations and stability in the Taiwan Straits. Therefore, it is foreseeable the Chinese mainland will constantly consolidate and safeguard the peaceful development across the Taiwan Straits by promoting cross-Straits relations in a firm, consistent and comprehensive manner.

With the comprehensive strength of the Chinese mainland being constantly enhanced, it will have increasing power to keep the cross-Straits relations and the situation across the Taiwan Straits under control as well as to lead the development of cross-Straits relations, thereby gradually narrowing the scope and degree of interfering with the cross-Straits relations by external factors. This trend has become increasingly evident as it can be seen in the development of cross-Straits relations in recent years. In the environment that is not conducive to the development of cross-Straits relations when the external forces like the US and Japan make increasing efforts to balance the rise of China and the situation in East Asia is turbulent as a whole, the cross-Straits relations remain peaceful and stable, which to some extent reflects that it has got some anti-interference capacity as led by the Chinese mainland. In March 2014, the anti-service trade student movement broke out in the island of Taiwan and the opposition to the development of cross-Straits relations grew stronger, but the Taiwan Affairs Office Director Zhang Zhijun visited Taiwan in June as scheduled, which proved the competence and confidence of the Chinese mainland to control the direction of cross-Straits relations.

Second, the incumbent Taiwan authorities hope that cross-Straits relations remain stable, and are not willing to challenge the bottom line of the Chinese mainland’s Taiwan policy. No matter it is because of the objective need of Taiwan’s economic and social development, or the consideration to consolidate the ruling base of himself or the Kuomintang Party, the Ma Ying-jeou administration needs stable cross-Straits relations and peaceful situation across the Taiwan Straits. Since Ma Ying-jeou took power, he has repeatedly emphasized the importance of cross-Straits relations and actively improved the relations with the Chinese mainland. As a result, the situation across the Taiwan Straits turned from highly tense to peaceful and stable, the cross-Straits economic and trade relations were deepened, the exchanges in various fields have been expanded rapidly and the Taiwan people have benefited substantively from these measures, which has become one of the most important achievements of the Ma Ying-jeou administration. Since 2008, the poll in Taiwan shows that those supporting the peaceful development of cross-Straits relations account for more than 70% of Taiwan population, which forms an important social foundation for the peaceful development of cross-Straits relations.

Third, the keynote of the current US policy on Taiwan issue is to maintain the basic stability across the Taiwan Straits. The foothold of the US and other external forces to check the development of cross-Straits relations lies in a judgment that it is in the maximum strategic and realistic interest of the US to keep China separated across the Taiwan Straits and to keep the cross-Straits relations neither too hot nor too cold but moderately tense. Because Taiwan Straits is one of the most sensitive areas in the world where a serious conflict is possible, it is in the interest of the most countries including the US to maintain relative stability and avoid direct confrontation among major powers.

For the US and other external forces, if they want Taiwan problem to play a long-term role in conducting relations with China, they must make sure that the two sides are in the state of separation. If both sides of the Taiwan Straits come too close or even intend to reunify, the Taiwan chip will be useless and the existing geopolitical pattern will be fundamentally changed, which is not what the external forces would like to see. But if the cross-Straits relations become too tense or even come to the brink of conflict, the risk of regional conflict will be significantly enhanced, and the US may be dragged into the direct face-to-face confrontation with China, which is also what the US tries to avoid. In the period before 2008, the Taiwan authorities incessantly stepped on the bottom line of “one China” policy, making the situation across the Taiwan Straits extremely combustible and the direct and fundamental interests of the relevant countries greatly affected. This also explains why the international community is opposed to the provocation of “Taiwan independence” and welcomes the peaceful development of cross-Straits relations. Since it is highly risky and costly to create the tense situation in the Taiwan Straits, the US did not list it as a tactic option in Asia Pacific rebalancing strategy, or at least did not list it as a priority. Based on the common sense of political reality and historical experience, it is in the interest of each party concerned to maintain the relative stability in Taiwan Straits, and this provides the favorable international environment for the stability of cross-Straits relations, as well as positive effect on the Ma Ying-jeou administration to adopt a stable mainland policy.

The above-mentioned three factors will have a positive effect in maintaining the peaceful and stable development of the cross-Straits relations, but in the absence of new elements, the development of cross-Straits relations will be slowed. In the next period, or at least before 2016, the cross-Straits relationship is expected to maintain steady development, but is difficult to make real progress.

On the one hand, both sides of the Taiwan Straits will have to digest and implement the policy measures that have already been introduced. For those that can be extended and expanded, the two sides must make adjustment and reach new understandings and consensus for the future development. Objectively speaking, the intrinsic momentum to push forward the cross-Straits relations will be reduced after the release of that momentum in the past short period of time. Furthermore, the world economy is in a downward track and the political forces in Taiwan island are seeking a new balance, with all these factors being considered, the possibility for the cross-Straits relations to have a leap forward is quite low.

On the other hand, the engagement and interference of the external forces also leads to the slow-down of improvement of cross-Straits relations. As indicated above, the development of strategic competition between China and the US as well as that between China and Japan determines that the pressure and action from the US and Japan to check the development of China will be on increase rather than decrease. In the future, the United States and Japan and other external forces will continue to put pressure on the Ma Ying-jeou administration to prevent the further connection and undermine the trust across the Taiwan Straits, which will have a negative impact on the development of cross-Straits relations.

The political situation in the Taiwan Island is a key factor in the future development of cross-Straits relationship. The key factor to incur significant changes in the cross-Straits relations is right within the Taiwan Island. Being influenced by various factors including domestic ones, the Chinese mainland and international factors, the attitude and policy of the Taiwan authorities on the relationship with the Chinese mainland can have the most direct impact on cross-Straits relations. In 2016, Taiwan will hold a new election for local leadership, and if there were the rotation of ruling parties, uncertainty in the cross-Straits relations would greatly increase in the current complex situation in East Asia. If the Democratic Progressive party that still insists on “Taiwan independence” misjudged the situation, or intentionally relied on the US and Japan to increase the check and balance of the Chinese mainland, its moves to challenge the bottom line of “one China” policy and prioritize the party interest would have serious impact on cross-Straits relations, and the twist or turbulence in situation across the Taiwan Straits would be possible.




The complex change in the situation in East Asia in recent years has not yet imposed a direct impact on the peaceful development of cross-Straits relations, but the impact will be reflected in the future development. It is because on the one hand, Taiwan problem was created as a result of international factors getting involved in the Chinese Civil War and has been manipulated and used by external forces over a long period of time, while on the other hand, the cross-Straits relations are subject to the influence of outside factors especially the change of situation in surrounding areas. It is noteworthy that at the time the Asia Pacific situation is undergoing complex changes due to the implementation of rebalancing strategy by the US, Taiwan has also come to the eve of political changes. If there were major change in the political situation in the Taiwan Island, the ruling authority might have misjudgment on the situation of East Asia, and the possibilities of turbulence in cross-Straits relations might be greatly increased.

If we examine the peaceful reunification as a historical process, we can see the impact of external factors and international environmental on cross-Straits relations will last until the Taiwan problem is finally solved. However, it does not mean that over a long period, the influence of the external factors on the development of cross-Straits relations and solution of Taiwan problem will remain unchanged. As a matter of fact, with the development and growth of China, with the increase of China’s competence to lead the direction of cross-Straits relations, and with the growing consensus on peaceful development across the Taiwan Straits, the negative impact of international factors on the future development of cross-Straits relations is bound to be weakened over time. 






[1] Xiu Chunping is Senior Research Fellow at the Taiwan Institute, the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.


[2] The so-called “Four Noes and One Not to” include: no declaration of “Taiwan Independence”, no change of the title of the ROC, no inclusion of “two-state” theory in the Constitution, no referendum on reunification or independence, not to abolish National Unification Guidelines or National Unification Council.


[3]2   Xia Liyan, “Taiwan is willing to share the burden of the US rebalancing to the Asia-Pacific”, Central Daily News (Taiwan), April 3, 2014.


[4]3   Zhang Zhijun,“Striving to advance the peaceful development of the cross-straits relations has become an inevitable trend”, Qiushi, November 2014.


[5]4   “General Secretary of the Communist Party of China Central Committee Xi Jinping met with a Taiwanese delegation composed of the island’s pro-reunification groups”, Xinhua News Agency, September 26, 2014.