Deciphering the Big China-Taiwan Meeting
With elections coming in January, will the Xi-Ma encounter reinforce stability or be the harbinger of new cross-Strait tensions?
It was an unusually creative gesture for Xi Jinping to agree to an unprecedented meeting with Taiwan’s President Ma Ying-jeou, the first such meeting between mainland and Taiwan heads of government in sixty-six years. Some even suggested a parallel with Richard Nixon’s opening to China in 1972.
But when the dust settled in Singapore, it was a meeting that lasted fifty minutes, produced no agreements or obvious new directions in cross-Strait relations. Its main import was that it actually happened. The measure of its significance will only be evident after Taiwan’s presidential elections next January. Will the Xi-Ma encounter reinforce stability or be the harbinger of new cross-Strait tensions if, as expected, the Democratic Progressive Party’s (DPP) Tsai Ing-wen is Ma’s successor as president?
That concern was clearly what motivated Xi to set the extraordinary precedent of treating Taiwan, which Beijing considers merely a province, as an equal entity. Though they addressed each other only as “Mister,” that political fiction did not hide the reality of Xi’s flattery of Taiwan.
Xi’s motives were transparent. As is evident in the East and South China Seas, restoring what it sees as rightful Chinese sovereignty is at the heart of the Chinese Communist Party’s legitimacy. After the return of Hong Kong and Macao, Beijing views Taiwan as the last piece of the puzzle to ending two centuries of humiliation.
Taiwan certainly was, until its recent preoccupation with maritime capabilities, the centerpiece of the first two decades of China’s rapid military modernization. Xi’s response to Ma’s suggestion that Beijing reduce its threatening deployment of hundreds of missiles across the Taiwan Strait as a gesture of good faith was not reassuring. Xi fatuously claimed the missiles were not targeting Taiwan.
With Taiwan’s January presidential elections looming, and the independence-leaning DPP far ahead of the ruling KMT party in the polls, Xi sought to reinforce the status quo and bolster the KMT. This was behind Xi’s rhetorical flourish, emphasizing blood ties, telling Ma, “We are brothers connected by flesh, even if our bones are broken.” Fear of Taiwan going its own way were clear. But in a Taiwan where those that came from the mainland in 1949 are fading, and a local Taiwanese (rather than Chinese) identity is growing, how will Xi’s words resonate?
The foundation of the elaborate development of economic, transport, communication and social ties that have evolved in the past seven years under Ma Ying-jeou’s presidency has been the so-called 1992 consensus of “One China, Different Interpretations.”
Thanks to openings in travel and communication, millions of Taiwanese and mainland Chinese now cross the Strait on a daily basis. Burgeoning cross-Strait trade and investment have boomed. China has become Taiwan’s largest trading partner, representing nearly 25 percent of Taiwan’s total trade. By some estimates, Taiwan has invested far more than the official figure of some $60 billion in the mainland economy, perhaps as much as $200–300 billion. Cross-Strait tourism has flourished, and more than a million Taiwanese are living and working in China, many around the Shanghai area.
These cross-Strait realities are now so commonplace that it is easy to forget they were only a hope little more than a decade ago.
The DPP’s opposition presidential candidate, Tsai Ing-wen, has made a point of stressing that if elected, she would not seek to undo this status quo. This, despite a DPP charter that calls for independence. Though the DPP has been fuzzy on whether it accepts the 1992 consensus, on a U.S. visit earlier this year Tsai convinced the Obama administration and many Washington China watchers that she would accept the cross-Strait status quo.
Yet for China, all the cross-Strait intermingling has not had the desired effect. Beijing has placed a priority on economic ties, hoping that enmeshing Taiwan into a “Greater China” economy (including Hong Kong) would accelerate political ties and a path to reunification. But this has not happened. If anything, as Taiwan’s economy has sputtered, there has been a backlash against cross-Strait economic integration, spectacularly seen in the 2014 “Sunflower” protests against a China-Taiwan trade pact. Many Taiwanese, perhaps unfairly, blame Taiwan’s economic malaise on the mainland, where jobs have been relocated.
Moreover, Beijing’s tough rejection of demands for democracy in Hong Kong during the recent “Umbrella Revolution” has also discredited what Beijing sees as a “One Country, Two Systems” model for reunification with Taiwan.
These trends help explain why a nervous Xi Jinping agreed to meet with Ma Ying-jeou. It is interesting that in the Xi-Ma meeting, Xi did not repeat his mantra that “One Country, Two Systems” is the model for China-Taiwan reunification. This suggests that perhaps Beijing understands that as Taiwan has watched Hong Kong’s experience over the past two decades, the stark differences in political systems have become more evident. Most Taiwanese have little appetite for what they fear would be “One Country, 1.5 Systems.” But will Xi be creative enough to devise an alternative approach?
One major political concern in Taiwan has been Beijing’s strong-arm tactics in preventing Taipei to join international organizations—even functional ones like the World Health Organization. Increasing its international space is a major concern for Taipei, and would perhaps be even more so under a DPP government.
That makes Xi’s offer to allow Taiwan to join the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank all the more interesting: it could create a precedent. Taiwan is extremely interested in expanding free trade agreements, and already participates in Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation under the agreed-upon name “Chinese Taipei.” As an APEC member economy, it should theoretically be allowed to join the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), one group that Taipei is particularly keen on.
But there were some interesting developments at the Singapore meeting that could also serve as precedents. For example, Xi offered to exchange representative offices in each other’s capital.
Whether or not Beijing finds acceptable terminology to allow Taiwan to join TPP and other international groupings will be one indicator of whether this period of stability in cross-Strait relations will continue. Beijing might also gain some much-needed leverage if it is more imaginative in dealing with a DPP government, one that could also include DPP control of Taiwan’s legislature. Some fear a DPP-led Taiwan will become a sore spot for Beijing, and will revert to the tensions that were often the norm before Ma took office.
But avoiding a “back to the future” scenario—a return to tension and confrontation—appears to be a major reason why Xi Jinping agreed to his meeting with Ma. On the other hand, the same populist nationalism that Xi has unleashed could lead to pressures to force reunification with Taiwan that the Communist Party won’t be able to control. Whether the Xi-Ma encounter leads to a new dynamic in cross-Strait relations, building on the status quo rather than undoing it, is an intriguing question. One measure of that is whether there will be a follow-up meeting with a DPP president. Stay tuned.
The author is a Senior Fellow of the Brent Scowcroft Center for International Security at the Atlantic Council. Follow him on Twitter @RManning4.