ChinaFile

Cross-Strait Summit: A Win for Taiwan’s President?

Ma got the meeting he wanted, while mainland President Xi took some risks, experts say.

Chinese President Xi Jinping (R) and Taiwan President Ma Ying-jeou wave to journalists before their meeting at Shangrila hotel in Singapore on November 7, 2015. The leaders of China and Taiwan hold a historic summit that will put a once unthinkable presidential seal on warming ties between the former Cold War rivals. AFP PHOTO / Roslan RAHMAN        (Photo credit should read ROSLAN RAHMAN/AFP/Getty Images)
Chinese President Xi Jinping (R) and Taiwan President Ma Ying-jeou wave to journalists before their meeting at Shangrila hotel in Singapore on November 7, 2015. The leaders of China and Taiwan hold a historic summit that will put a once unthinkable presidential seal on warming ties between the former Cold War rivals. AFP PHOTO / Roslan RAHMAN (Photo credit should read ROSLAN RAHMAN/AFP/Getty Images)

On Nov. 7, for the first time since 1949, the leaders of China and Taiwan met face to face. Xi Jinping and Ma Ying-jeou shook hands and waved to assembled press not as presidents, but — to sidestep one of many lingering areas of conflict since the Chinese Civil War which drove the defeated Nationalist Party (KMT) into exile on the now self-governing island — as representatives of their respective political parties. As agreed in advance, they addressed 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? In this ChinaFile conversation, experts discuss.

Andrew J. Nathan, Professor of Political Science, Columbia University:

Ma 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 Ma’s actual position on the status of Taiwan is complicated, but whatever it is, he has not been required to change it.) In terms of domestic politics, 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 Xi’s motives 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. Meeting with the Taiwanese 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.

Jerome A. Cohen, Professor, New York University School of Law:

I agree with Andrew Nathan’s analysis of the Ma-Xi 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 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 mainland’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 (United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea) arbitration tribunal. Taiwan, despite the fact this claim originated in the Republic of China (R.O.C.) before the People’s Republic of China 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.

Ho-fung Hung, Associate Professor of Sociology, Johns Hopkins University:

Andrew Nathan is right that in the Ma-Xi meeting, Ma took 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 the Taiwan electorate; a poll by Taiwan-based media outlet Apple Daily of several hundred readers shows 53.1 percent of respondents are against such a meeting versus 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 Ma meeting Xi while still holding the presidential office in Taipei establishes 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 Communist Party and KMT in the years to come.

From Xi’s perspective, 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 Democratic Progressive Party, the opposition party expected to win the election in January, will find it difficult to reverse once in power. But besides this, Xi has 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 Communist Party’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 has offered Ma. This is indeed mysterious. The question is: what Xi does expect to obtain in return?

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 2016 and before the inauguration of the new president in May 2016, 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.

Generally speaking, the summit definitely increases the amicability across the Taiwan Strait and helps reduce the chance of a cross-Strait war into which the United States could get dragged. But to the disappointment of many in Taiwan, as it turns out, Xi did not promise to withdraw any of the more than the one-thousand missiles allegedly targeting Taiwan in the meeting, though Ma reportedly raised concerns about it. And Ma, in his official statement read to Xi during the meeting, unambiguously equates the “1992 Consensus” between Taipei and Beijing to the “one China” (yizhong) principle, deviating from the “One China, with different interpretations of what one China is” (yizhong gebiao) line that the Taiwan side always emphasizes. It moves Taiwan further into step with Beijing’s line that “Taiwan and mainland both belong to the People’s Republic of China,” jeopardizing the legitimacy of the Republic of China in Taiwan.

To rebalance, leaders in Taipei and Washington could consider building on the momentum of normalization of Taiwan-China relation to normalize the Taiwan-U.S. relation, as Dan Blumenthal of the American Enterprise Institute has recently advocated. Perhaps after this historic handshake between Taiwan’s and China’s Presidents, another historic handshake between Taiwan’s next President and America’s will be less unimaginable now?

This piece has been updated with additional contributions from Ho-fung Hung.

AFP/Getty Images

Andrew J. Nathan is a professor of political science at Columbia University.

Ho-fung Hung is an associate professor of sociology at Johns Hopkins University.

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