The China-Taiwan Summit

A ChinaFile Conversation

badiucao—China Digital Times
This Saturday, for the first time since 1949, the leaders of China and Taiwan will meet face to face. Xi Jinping and Ma Ying-jeou will meet in Singapore, not as Presidents, but—to sidestep one of many lingering areas of conflict since the Chinese Civil War—as representatives of their respective political parties. They will address one another simply as “Mr. Ma” and “Mr. Xi.” Why is this meeting happening now? What are its effects likely to be in Taiwan and on the mainland? How is it likely to affect Taiwan’s upcoming elections? And how might it change the nature of cross-Strait relations? —The Editors


We learn from The New York Times that Taiwan’s President Ma had long sought a meeting with the P.R.C. President Xi, and that, until agreeing to their upcoming encounter in Singapore, Xi had rejected the idea. That seems a clue to the timing of this unusual event. Taiwan will hold a presidential election in January. The candidate of the opposition Democratic Progressive Party, which embodies the idea of a separate Taiwanese identity, if not de jure independence, is widely expected to win. China would much prefer that the KMT stay in office, and from time to time some prominent mainland personality issue a statement warning of dreadful consequences if a pro-independence candidate comes to power.

It seems from this highly likely that Xi accepted to meet with Ma just now as a way of wielding some influence with Taiwan’s electorate, to convey the message that by sticking with the KMT, which embodies the idea of cross-strait Chinese commonality, if not actual reunification, Taiwan’s voters will avoid conflict and ensure themselves a more secure and more prosperous future.

What’s notable here is that, unlike on the mainland where he can pretty much dictate terms, Xi faces an electorate on Taiwan that can only be influenced, not dictated to. Taiwan not only has elections, it also has the intellectual freedom to forge its cultural identity, and with the passage of time and the procession of the generations, that cultural identity has become more and more separate from that of the mainland. One of the several reasons the D.P.P.’s candidate, Tsai Ing-wen, is ahead in the polls is the widespread worry on Taiwan that the rapid development of cross-strait relations under Ma has given the authoritarian leaders in Beijing too much influence over local affairs. That was, for example, the main reason behind last year’s Sunflower Movement, when student-led demonstrators occupied the legislative yuan and forced a new cross-straits trade from being passed. Meanwhile, polls show roughly 80 percent support on Taiwan for the status quo, meaning no formal independence but no reunification with the Mainland either.

And so, we have a paradox. Ma, who will leave office after the elections, wants to be remembered as the president under whom cross-strait ties flourished, an accomplishment that will be celebrated by Xi’s embrace of him in Singapore this weekend but an accomplishment that leaves many people on Taiwan unmoved and unconvinced. Ma is an unpopular lame duck. His party is in disarray and likely to be dismissed from power by the sort of expression of popular will that, as every Taiwanese knows, doesn't exist in the P.R.C. It’s for these reasons that, while the summit in Singapore will attract tremendous attention, it’s not very likely to change the basic nature of the Taiwan-P.R.C. divide.

Ma Ying-jeou has wanted a meeting of this kind for a long time, and stands to gain from it in two ways. First, in cross-strait terms, he gets to meet the Chinese president on an equal basis without having to make any concessions on his position on the status of Taiwan. (Parsing what Ma’s position on the status of Taiwan actually is is complicated, but whatever it is, he has not been required to change it.) In domestic politics terms, he can reinforce his message to the domestic public that the course of wisdom for Taiwan is to seek cooperation with mainland China. I doubt that he expects to influence the outcome of the upcoming presidential election. But he wants to drive home the point that cooperation with the mainland is possible and that it is better for Taiwan’s residents than the alternative.

More mysterious are the motives of Xi Jinping in agreeing to the meeting. Like Ma, Xi does not have to give up his basic principle on the question of Taiwan’s status, which is the One China Principle. Yet he pays a subtle price, because meeting with the R.O.C. president on a “mister”-to-“mister” basis risks creating an optic of what some have called mutual non-subordination, something Beijing has never agreed to before. Xi has also had to give up the demand that the price of a presidential meeting would be “political” talks. What political talks would mean was always vague. But Ma’s statements in advance of the meeting indicate that he will not engage in anything that would rise to that level.

Xi therefore has taken more risk than Ma with this meeting. (Ma, after all, with his popularity at rock bottom, has nothing left to lose.) What looks like a sudden decision to hold it, at an awkward time, suggests a certain desperation. I speculate that Xi shares Ma’s view that it is important to send a message to the Taiwan public about the bright prospects of cross-strait cooperation. Perhaps he, unlike Ma, thinks that this can affect the election. But more likely he is playing a longer game, hoping to stem the rapid rise of anti-mainland sentiment in Taiwan, and in that way to influence the behavior of the next Taiwan administration.

I agree with Andrew Nathan’s analysis of the M-X meeting. Moreover, I want to endorse the desirability of the meeting despite the understandable anxieties it has provoked in Taiwan. I do not think the meeting’s outcome, which is likely to be modest—yet important—will vindicate the many concerns that have been voiced on the island.

I think President Ma wants to establish a major precedent that features symbolism and process, not any particular substantive result, which he in any event is not in a political position to deliver. I believe he hopes to launch a continuing series of leadership meetings that will enhance cross-strait communications and stimulate the respective bureaucracies to focus on cooperation in more creative ways than we have witnessed during his second term. The meeting is a capstone to Ma’s successful first-term efforts to enhance cooperation and communication through negotiations imaginatively conducted in ways that have allowed Taiwan equal status and dignity with its Mainland rival, a hugely impressive accomplishment for which Taiwan residents and the world have given him too little appreciation. Whether his successor, whoever she or he is, can really build on this meeting will determine whether it becomes a genuine precedent rather than a one-off “sport” or even a mistake.

Xi, of course, has different reasons perhaps for wanting this meeting. He undoubtedly realizes the risk that post-Ma Taiwan may slip away from Beijing’s orbit and should want to institutionalize the communication process. He may take this occasion to begin a “charm offensive” instead of intensifying the threats and other pressures many fear might occur once Ma steps down.

Of course, there could be substance discussed also. The most prominent possibility is that Xi may want to assure Taiwan’s unwavering support for the P.R.C.’s controversial South China Sea claims at a time when Beijing is out on a limb because of its vague but Gargantuan nine-dash line claim that may soon be swept away by the Philippines UNCLOS arbitration tribunal. Taiwan, despite the fact this claim originated in the R.O.C. before the P.R.C. was founded, would be foolish to go along with the whole nine-yards. Indeed, the R.O.C. Foreign Ministry’s October 31 statement about the UNCLOS arbitration suggests commendable caution and perhaps a subtle modification of its earlier position.

We will know more in less than 48 hours. As Matthew Arnold once wrote: ”Only the event will teach us in its hour.”

Andrew Nathan is right that in the upcoming Ma-Xi meeting, Ma takes fewer risks than Xi. Ma is not going to face any more elections after he steps down as Taiwan President next May. What he needs to worry about right now is his continuous influence within the KMT. The Ma-Xi meeting is not popular among Taiwan electorate, as a poll by Apple Daily shows that 53.1 percent of respondents are against such a meeting vs only 38.8 percent in favor. The meeting won’t help the KMT in the upcoming election. But it will help boost Ma’s standing in the party, preventing his being sidelined by other factions after he finishes his term. The current chairman of the party Eric Chu and its honorary chairman Lien Chan have both met Xi before. Now when Ma meets Xi while still holding the presidential office in Taipei, he will establish a historic precedent the significance of which surpasses Lien’s and Chu’s earlier meetings. This will anchor Ma’s role as a legitimate broker between the C.C.P. and KMT in the years to come.

From the perspective of Xi, such a summit right before the presidential and parliamentary election in Taiwan will have the effect of boosting the momentum of normalization of cross-Strait relation that the D.P.P., the opposition party expected to win the election in January, will find it difficult to reverse once in power. But besides this, Xi will have little else to gain, and he needs to bear the risk as noted by Nathan: The status of Xi and Ma may appear to be too equal in the meeting, and this appearance of mutual-non-subordination will be a dangerous precedent from the C.C.P.’s perspective. It is still early in Xi’s presidency, so he does not have the urgency of Ma to have the meeting now. He could well wait a little bit to take any major step with respect to Taiwan after the election. As such, the Ma-Xi summit is a favor that Xi offers Ma. This is indeed mysterious. The question is: what Xi does expect to obtain in return from Ma for this favor?

Maybe we can seek insights from Dr. Lee Teng-hui, the first democratically elected president of Taiwan in 1996-2000. He remarked in a recent interview that after the election in January, next year and before the inauguration of the new president in May, Ma is still the president and he might use his residual power to rush through agreements and approvals that will further speed up integration across the Taiwan Strait, forcing the incoming administration to accept the subsequent status quo. This might involve allowing major state owned companies from China to acquire Taiwanese corporations in sensitive sectors, for example.

Such deals have been widely unpopular, and many of them have been stuck in the political process. Even the current KMT administration has been hesitant in giving green lights on those for fear of electoral backlash. They are seen by many Taiwanese as Beijing’s Trojan horses that will only benefit big business and compromise Taiwan’s sovereignty. The popular opposition to these deals is precisely the origin of the sunflower movement last year and the low rating of KMT candidates. I won’t be surprised if the Ma-Xi meeting turns out to be a cover and precursor of such a move by Ma during the last few months of his presidency. Of course, only time can tell.

What a big surprise for many observers and analysts of cross-Strait relations! “Mr. Xi,” China’s President, and “Mr. Ma,” Taiwan’s President, finally decided to meet in Singapore on November 7, 2015, after several years of media speculation on the likelihood of this historical meeting. When the speculation became a reality, the guesswork immediately turned to why now? The puzzle is particularly pertinent to China, which has long considered that time is on its side to resolve the Taiwan issue with China’s growing influence in the international arena. This reassurance is in contrast to Taiwan’s difficulty expanding its international space and its almost irreversible economic dependence on China’s market for sustainable development. As a relatively weak counterpart in dealing with China, Taiwan has fewer bargaining chips than China as evidenced in China’s past rejections of Taiwan’s proposals for such a meeting between leaders. While future media coverage will likely reveal China’s political calculations in full, I would submit that China’s overall recalculation of its Taiwan policy was the key in precipitating the meeting in Singapore. Surely, the current U.S.-China disputes in the South China Sea require Taiwan’s tacit non-disruption in China’s legal and legitimate stand on the historical 9-dash line boundary claim. And China’s security interest in regional power expansion to the western Pacific would be better served without Taiwan’s provocative moves. However, the South China Sea issue and other international disputes between China and regional powers have been there for years and informal patterns of conflict resolution and tension reduction have been gradually established. Thus, I would point out the significance of Taiwan’s domestic development as the primary factor for China’s dramatic decision to agree on the “gentlemen’s meeting” in Singapore. Simply put, it is the democratic Taiwan that China feels powerless to harness effectively in recent years. China’s military threat has been a powerful deterrent to Taiwan’s de jure independence movement, but it fails to be an effective united front tool in Taiwan. China’s economic concession to Taiwan is surely attractive and appealing, but its policy benefits have not become widespread and equally shared among people enough to win the support of the majority of Taiwanese people. On the contrary, bilateral economic interactions have heightened Taiwanese awareness and anxiety of possible security risks from excessive reliance on the China market. Meanwhile, China’s unwillingness to accommodate Taiwan’s demand for more international space only reinforces the impression of China’s “bossy” attitude toward Taiwan’s plea for meaningful international participation. Combined, all of these factors only deepen people’s anger over the China effect on Taiwan’s international isolation and increasingly strengthen public desire for separation from, rather than unification with, China, regardless of China’s magnificent parade of global wealth of power. Hence, even with China’s upward trajectory of world power and prestige, its plan to wait for Taiwan’s eventual and natural unification has not gained the expected momentum. Taiwan’s rising anti-China sentiment such as the recent Sunflower Movement, the increasing identity acceptance of being “Taiwanese,” rather than “Chinese,” and the surging general desire for Taiwanese independence are all clear evidence of China’s failure in its Taiwan policy. Therefore, Mr. Xi’s epic move to agree to meet Mr. Ma is a bold out-of-the-box gesture and a departure from previous cross-Strait frameworks set up by former Chinese leaders—Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao. The meeting serves various interests to multiple parties. Xi demonstrates his willingness to see how far he can explore and expand the realm of possibility under China’s firm stand on the One China principle. Ma reaps a personal legacy of his presidency and builds a bridge for future Taiwanese leaders to cross, even though it may be a bridge too far for the DPP leader, i.e., Chairwoman and DPP candidate Tsai Ying-wen, to walk. The KMT and its presidential candidate Eric Chu can utilize this meeting as a salient issue to re-mobilize pan-blue supporters and partial independent voters by showing that the KMT is capable of handling the cross-Strait relations better than their opponents. The DPP can lash out its harsh criticism of a sneaky move by Ma and the KMT to spoil Tsai’s electoral advantages, thus keeping all pan-green supporters and anti-Ma critics united. The meeting’s short term impact will be shown in the presidential election on January 16, 2016, but its long term result will depend on how both sides reciprocate and accommodate for many years to come.