The eyes of the international community were turned to Singapore this weekend for the “historic” summit between President Ma Ying-jeou of Taiwan and Xi Jinping of China—the first direct contact between the leaders of the two sides since the creation of the People’s Republic of China in 1949. Eager to portray the unprecedented meeting as a potential game-changer, some commentators flirted with hyperbole: an eighty-second handshake had reversed six decades of hostility, realizing common hopes that, we were told, would propel relations across the Taiwan Strait in an entirely new and hopefully peaceful direction. All of this, however, was overhyped by media that thrive on dramatics. In reality, the meeting was a distraction that is unlikely to fundamentally alter the face of politics between the two countries.
It was certainly tempting to regard the summit as a milestone in cross-Strait relations, especially among latecomers to the issue, who may not have had all the information they needed to fully grasp the hugely complex relationship that exists between China and Taiwan, the democracy of twenty-three million that Beijing regards as a mere breakaway province awaiting “reunification” and the significance (or lack thereof) of the meeting.
One characteristic of many of the articles and news reports that surfaced prior to and in the wake of the meeting in Singapore was the tendency to regard the event as representing a sudden shift in relations. This created the impression that at long last, Taiwan and China had come to their senses by stepping back from the brink of nuclear war and ushering in an era of “brotherly” peace and reconciliation. Many news reports failed to explain that relations between the two sides had already improved—or at least normalized in many respects—over the past seven years, and that the meeting was therefore the logical next step.
Another blind spot for a number of commentators was their reading of the reactions to the meeting back in Taiwan, which were characterized as either “hopeful” or, among the supposedly “anti-China” segment of the population, downright “hostile.” Nuance, where the true essence of Taiwan can be found, was sacrificed for the sake of storytelling, and its antithesis, ignorance, played to the benefit of the two entities that stood to gain the most from the black-and-white depiction of the situation: President Ma’s party and the Chinese Communist Party.
To understand why the summit wasn’t such a big deal, and ultimately why it will not have a substantial or impact on the future, we must turn to public attitudes in Taiwan , which are often overlooked by the international community, largely due to the absence of foreign journalists in Taiwan and academia’s subsuming of Taiwan into the field of “China studies.” It is essential that we come to terms with the reality that although Taiwanese generally favor dialogue between senior officials from both sides of the Taiwan Strait under the right conditions , they are adamant that such contact shouldn’t come at the price of Taiwan’s liberal democratic way of life. This is a non-negotiable point not only for the pro-Taiwan independence camp, but also for the traditional supporters of President Ma’s party, the Kuomintang (KMT), and those who hold that their country is the Republic of China, the official designation for Taiwan. President Xi could report for eternity that the two sides are a “ family whose blood is thicker than water ” and that “no force could separate” Taiwan and China; the reality is that such a force exists, and it is alive and well. That force is democracy, which is now inextricably enmeshed with Taiwan’s idiosyncratic and multifaceted identity. On Saturday night a number of retired KMT soldiers, now in their eighties and nineties, expressed deep anger with President Ma and wondered why they had made so many sacrifices fighting the civil war only to see their president “capitulate” to the Communists. Although “capitulation” probably overstates Ma’s intentions, this is nevertheless a telling anecdote.
The Taiwanese are also aware that despite the good intentions that were ostensibly behind President Xi’s decision to meet President Ma, Beijing’s designs on Taiwan have not changed: it still does not recognize the existence of Taiwan and remains fully committed to annexing the island nation—by recourse to force if necessary—a position that collides with the deeply held view, even if unstated by many, that Taiwan already exists as an independent state.
In fact, it is probably Beijing’s fear that Taiwan is “slipping away” that led its leadership to finally make the meeting happen, if only to maintain the illusion that relations are on track and to give President Ma’s party a much-needed morale boost. Rather than a seminal development in cross-Strait relations, the meeting was conceivably an act of desperation, an eleventh-hour gamble that, in terms of its optics, could not have occurred at a worst time, taking place two months before the presidential and legislative elections in Taiwan.