In a historic meeting Saturday between top leaders of China and Taiwan, the first since the two split at the end of the Chinese civil war in 1949, the two sides attempted to affirm their own legacy of developing the cross-strait relations, seizing upon the opportunity of an ad-hoc convergence of domestic political interests.
Chinese President Xi Jinping and Taiwan President Ma Ying-jeou met in Singapore to defend a record of progress toward closer ties and to lay the political basis for future exchanges. Both stressed the historic importance of the meeting and each stressed the so-called “1992 consensus,” a formula created to skirt the issue of mutual recognition between China and the self-ruled Taiwan, that were both part of the same Republic of China (ROC) before 1949.
The meeting comes at a delicate time for the two leaders as the ruling Nationalist Party of Taiwan, which advocates closer relations with China, faces a likely defeat in the January 16 general elections by the independence-leaning Democratic Progressive Party (DPP).
The summit is an attempt to present the DPP candidate, Tsai Ing-wen, the likely future Taiwan president, with a fait accompli of regular high-level political contacts.
In remarks to the media before the closed-door meeting, China’s Xi said that Chinese on both sides of the strait are one family because “blood is thicker than water.” “We are sitting together today to prevent the historical tragedy from repeating itself,” said Xi. Taiwan President Ma Ying-jeou said that he hoped China would use peace and not force to resolve cross-strait issues.
The elaborately choreographed diplomatic dance, exemplified by the location of the summit in Singapore, seen as neutral ground yet on good terms with both sides, the agreed formula of how to address each other (‘Mister’ rather than ‘President’), even the color of their ties (Ma wore blue and Xi red), all were the focus of intense interest by the media and attest to the sensitivity of China-Taiwan relations.
“A handshake across the strait”
For Ma, the mere fact of a long-denied meeting with China’s Xi is an affirmation of the main legacy of his eightyear tenure – closer ties with China. On Wednesday, Ma said that the historic meeting with Xi “will be an important start for direct communication between leaders.” Xinhua, China’s official news agency concurred, reporting the meeting “will be crucial to high-level political exchanges across the Taiwan Strait and will steer future cross-Strait relations.”
China is concerned that following the January elections in Taiwan, the DPP, whose base of support is far more skeptical of closer ties with China, will move to do away with the current status quo. That is why Xi agreed to a meeting with Ma two months before the general elections.
China also welcomed Taiwan to join the China-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) “in an appropriate manner,” Zhang Zhijun, head of China’s Taiwan Affairs Office, told a media briefing after the meeting. China had previously withheld its consent for Taiwan joining the newly created organization.
Zhang also said that Xi agreed to Ma’s proposal of establishing a crossstrait hot line.
Why Taiwan is important for China
After the establishment of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) on October 1, 1949, which ended the Chinese Civil War, the Nationalist Party, or Kuomintang government, led by Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek, retreated to the island of Taiwan, about 160 km from Mainland China. Since then, Taiwan has enjoyed de facto, though not de jure, independence, though it was the stated aim of the Nationalists to retake China.
For Beijing, Taiwan was a renegade province separated from the mainland by foreign forces and the most blatant example of China’s “century of humiliation.”
The “1992 consensus,” reached between mid-level officials from Taiwan and China in a meeting that year in Hong Kong, laid the ground rules of exchanges – that both agree there is but one China, but agree to different interpretations of the term.
The challenges going forward
While the summit between Xi and Ma demonstrated an ad-hoc convergence of political interests between the two parties, this does not mean that China and Taiwan fully agree on how to resolve their differences. The separate press conferences held after the meeting by the two sides made amply clear their respective emphasis.
While Xi emphasized the common destiny of Chinese on both sides of the strait, Ma raised with Xi the missiles China has deployed in order to signal the huge power gap between the two sides.
Ma said that Xi assured him “the missiles were not against Taiwan,” a statement unlikely to fly well with Taiwanese voters.
China’s state-owned television did not broadcast live Ma’s press conference, and made only an oblique reference to the issue by saying Ma proposed maintaining peaceful cross-strait relations.
The Taiwanese media took Ma to task due for not protesting to Xi that China seems to interpret the meaning of the 1992 consensus in a way that allows less international space for Taiwan. Ma denied it, saying, “Some say the 1992 consensus is a masterpiece of ambiguity.
Yes, but it allowed us to meet.”
Ma also showed his frustration noting “cross-strait relations have developed thus far, isn’t it weird the leaders haven’t met until now?” It is too early to say whether the meeting will influence the coming elections in Taiwan. The polls consistently give the DPP a solid lead not only in the presidential race but also in the elections for the Taiwanese legislature. The possibility of the independence-leaning DPP gaining for the first time control of the island’s legislature is causing China’s leaders to lose sleep.
But the biggest challenge to China’s objective of regaining the island lies in the fact that Taiwan has changed greatly since the end of martial law in 1987 and the transition toward democracy.
With the rise of local Taiwanese identity, polls show very low appetite for any sort of political union with the mainland.
As voters feel Ma has gone too far in his efforts to move closer to China, the Nationalists lag behind the DPP in the coming elections. The summit is a gambit to force DPP’s Tsai Ing-wen to accept the 1992 consensus as the basis of future cross-strait relations. After news of the meeting broke late Tuesday, Tsai criticized Ma for “boxing in Taiwan’s future for personal political gain.”
The China-Taiwan-US triangle
The issue of Taiwan remains a flashpoint in US-China relations. After the US switched its recognition from Taiwan to the People’s Republic of China, US Congress passed the Taiwan Relations Act in 1979. The act requires the US president to view any Chinese use of force against Taiwan as a threat to the peace and security of the region and to consult with Congress on how to react.
For China, the issue of Taiwan remains an extremely emotional as China views the question of Taiwan as an internal affair in which no foreign power has the right to interfere. But China faces an uphill battle to win hearts and minds of the Taiwanese, and the future Taiwanese administration will be tested both in its relations with China and with the US.
The author is the founding director of The Chinese Media Center (CMC), at the School of Media Studies of The College of Management Academic Studies, Rishon Lezion.