‘China to China’: What the handshake in Singapore means for the world order

The historic handshake between the presidents of Taiwan and China lends a visual symbol of reconciliation and practical cooperation to the quiet work which has been done for years.

CHINESE PRESIDENT Xi Jinping shakes hands with Taiwan’s President Ma Yingjeou during a summit in Singapore on November 7. (photo credit: REUTERS)
CHINESE PRESIDENT Xi Jinping shakes hands with Taiwan’s President Ma Yingjeou during a summit in Singapore on November 7.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Back in 1972, “Nixon to China” became a byword in diplomacy and statecraft: the bold leap over a long-held ideological barrier, which enabled a firm Republican anti-communist to transform relations with a key global player, and utilize the rift that had already emerged between Beijing and Moscow. Guided by Henry Kissinger’s conceptual framework of the balance of power and raison d’etat, this remains in the public mind – like Sadat’s visit to Jerusalem – an emblematic event, symbolizing the wisdom of tempering old rivalries with the practical search for common interests.
The much heralded historic handshake, first of its kind ever since the breakup in 1949, between presidents Ma Yingjeou of the Republic of China (Taiwan) and Xi Jinping of the People’s Republic of China (the mainland), which took place on November 7 – in front of the cameras – bears some of the same characteristics: a dramatic touch, lending a visual symbol of reconciliation and practical cooperation to the quiet work which has been done for years to prepare for this moment. And yet there is a difference. Nixon’s breakthrough came, for most of the world, as a bolt from the blue: a radical reversal of past positions and attitudes. The Ma-Xi summit, on the other hand, was expected for some time; the Singaporean paper The Straits Times actually predicted back in October 2013 that such a meeting was in the making, possibly at the APEC summit in 2014: but that would have had the drawback of being hosted by the PRC, rather than taking place on “neutral ground” (in a hotel in Singapore).
President Ma has long expressed an interest in better relations with Beijing – to the dismay of some of his citizens, who again reacted angrily to the meeting (and may vent their anger in the January 2016 presidential election). This led, since he came to power in 2008, to the flourishing of economic and cultural exchanges.
But it was only after the rise to power of Xi Jinping in 2012, and the success of his actions to consolidate power, fight corruption and implement economic reforms that Beijing responded at the political level, and road began to open toward the Singapore summit. Given his personal base and his long experience in the regional affairs of the south-eastern coastal areas – China’s economic powerhouse – Xi was well positioned to appreciate the depth, and the importance, of economic, social and even familial links across the Taiwan Strait, and thus to give momentum to the cross-strait talks.
In October 2013, Xi met in Bali, on the sidelines of the annual APEC summit, with former RoC vice president Vincent Siew, and expressed his interest in expediting contacts. This was immediately followed by a ground-breaking meeting – conducted on terms of respectful equality – between the officials charged with relations with the other side, namely Zhang Zhijun, director of the PRC cabinet-level Taiwan Affairs Office, and Wang Yu-chi, head of the RoC Mainland Affairs Council. Contacts had until then had been conducted by semi-official bodies – Taiwan’s “Straits Exchange Foundation” and the PRC “Association for Relations Across the Taiwan Strait,” whose respective heads met (also in Singapore) as early as 1993 – but now took on a dignified formal nature at the ministerial level.
This led directly to the normalization, in 2014, of a cross-strait liaison mechanism between the TAO and the MAC: and thus, the leap now taken at the highest level was not quite over an open abyss, but rather over well-prepared terrain. Not much substance was discussed between Xi and Ma – it was agreed in advance that they “will not engage in political negotiations, nor will they sign an agreement or issue a joint statement.” Indeed, there was hardly a need for that: the basic ground rules have been laid way back in 1992 (at the waning of the Cold War system and its mentality) based on the “One China, Respective Interpretation,” also called “92 consensus”: both sides recognize the “One China” principle, but may have and express orally their respective interpretation of its content.
Still, even if the essence of relations did not change, the handshake does carry with it profound implications for the regional balance and the global order.
Two aspects stand out: • In line with his statements at the National University of Singapore, Xi looks upon China’s claims in the South China Sea – the famous “nine-dash line” delineating what Beijing considers to be part of China by right – as a long-standing national position, rather than a Communist caprice; hence the implicit message, silently “hanging in the air” in the meeting with President Ma (without being openly discussed), that since it was Chiang Kai-Shek who drew the line in the first place, it would be legitimate to expect today’s KMT to uphold the claim.
• At the same time, he took a deliberately open position on both the Taiwan issue and the regional disputes (which were exacerbated in recent weeks by American counter-steps, such as the mission of the USS Lassen and the visit of US Secretary of Defense Ash Carter in disputed areas): sternly refusing to compromise on China’s national rights, but equally emphatic in rejecting any use of force.
This is in line with a painful historical reference, systematically reviewed by Kissinger in his monumental book about China: the need for the leadership in Beijing to avoid making the fatal mistake of Kaiser Willhelm II of imperial Germany, whose arrogant decision in 1907 to compete with Britain on the high seas led inevitably to World War I. Will China also rise to co-centrality in the world order by aggressively contesting the place of others – or will it honor the wisdom of Bismarck (who detested the Kaiser’s folly) by learning from his policies of caution and the acceptance of the balance of power? Therein lies the meaning of the Singapore Summit.
A crucial prerequisite, for any attempt to allay the tensions and anxieties which are bound to attend China’s global rise, is to try and make it clear that relations with Taiwan are on course. Above all, the fears that “China can invade by 2020” – expressed by Taiwan officials in the National Defense Report back in 2013 – must be shown to be, in fact, unfounded.
Time will tell whether the handshake did deliver this vital message.
The author is Senior Research Associate at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies, and a faculty member at the Shalem Academic Center. He served as deputy national security adviser until September 2015.