Tea Leaf Nation
The Meeting Between Ma and Xi: Just What the World Doesn’t Need
Taiwanese society is too bitterly opposed, its president too politically enfeebled.
On Nov. 3, news broke that Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou will meet face to face with Chinese President Xi Jinping in Singapore this Saturday, Nov. 7. U.S. State Department press director Elizabeth Trudeau said during a press briefing that same day that “it’s always good timing” for steps toward a peaceful resolution of conflicts. In fact, the timing could not be worse. Despite its historic nature, the encounter will only further weaken Taiwan’s ruling party, serve to polarize Taiwanese society, and perhaps even destabilize cross-strait relations.
The current standoff between China and Taiwan is seriously bad for stability in the Asia-Pacific. A massive and increasingly rich and aggressive autocratic country claims sovereignty over a democratically ruled island nation of 23 million whose government is a remnant of the Chinese Civil War of the 1940s — and one that the United States is required by its own laws to help arm. If there were a normalized, formalized, and regularly occurring summit meeting between the two heads of state, it would go toward showing that both sides are committed to a solution acceptable to all parties involved. Even this single meeting should ideally signal to the international community that the two leaders are interested in resolving disputes through dialogue, not violence.
The problem is that Taiwan, pesky democracy that it is, does not have the popular support for such a get-together, seriously undermining whatever stabilizing influence it would otherwise exert. President Ma and his Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) ran in 2008 on a platform focused on economic growth and the reduction of tensions across the Taiwan Strait. At the time, the Chinese and the Americans branded then-President Chen Shui-bian as overly provocative, an unstable demagogue with destabilizing policies who taunted Beijing. Ma and the KMT swept those elections, winning a majority in the legislature and, by a wide margin, the presidency. This handed Ma and his party an opportunity to institute changes and move cross-strait policy forward, complete with the popular support they needed.
Since then, Ma has attempted to fashion himself as a statesman working on one of the most serious geopolitical conundrums in the world today. This can be seen from what he touts as his achievements in office: concluding a long list of agreements with Beijing, most notably the Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement, signed in 2010; opening up Taiwan for Chinese tourists and exchange students from China; and direct flights between the two sides over the Taiwan Strait. Ma sees only one piece missing from his presidential legacy: a meeting with the leader of the People’s Republic.
Alas for Ma, the moment for him and his party has already passed. Now, the meeting with Xi will only further weaken an already reeling KMT and polarize Taiwanese society even more. Precisely because Ma followed through on his promise to bring Taiwan closer to China — but did so in ways widely seen as dodging needed public scrutiny and oversight — he is now a deeply unpopular president, with approval ratings that in October registered at an anemic 16.3 percent. Ma will soon be termed out, but his party has only about two months until the next national election, in which it is almost certain to lose the presidency and quite possibly its legislative majority.
Things have gotten so bad for the KMT that in early 2015, it could not find a presidential candidate to nominate because no one wanted to run — that included the speaker of the legislature, the vice president, the premier, and the party chairman. The KMT was finally able to nominate the vice speaker of the legislature, Hung Hsiu-chiu, who was then unceremoniously stripped of her nomination after she polled in the low teens. One reason for her unpopularity, incidentally, was her outspoken views on further unification with China. Meanwhile, several sitting KMT legislators have announced retirement or defected to another party in hopes of surviving the early 2016 election.
Even Ma’s achievements in cross-strait accords have backfired. His unsuccessful effort to push a services trade agreement with China through the Taiwanese legislature unleashed the Sunflower Movement last year, which saw student activists occupying the legislature for almost a month and demanding it pass laws overseeing all future cross-strait negotiations. During that time, protesters also stormed the executive offices, resulting in riot police crackdowns the likes of which Taiwan hadn’t seen since martial law. A March 2014 rally to express discontent with Ma’s handling of the matter drew up to half a million people. Since then, similar protests have continued to break out after government moves perceived as too Beijing-friendly. When Taiwan expressed interest in joining the China-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, 300 people showed up in front of the Presidential Office Building; textbook revisions that cast Taiwanese history as part of Chinese history prompted high school students to storm the Education Ministry.
It’s hardly surprising, then, that Taiwanese society has already reacted adversely to the news of the Ma-Xi summit. The first of many editorial maelstroms in Taiwan’s freewheeling press calls for the legislature to impeach or, worse, recall the president over the upcoming face-to-face. Civic groups and new opposition parties such as the New Power Party and the Social Democratic Party have gathered in front of the legislature to protest the president’s lack of public consultation and notice. The public has been asking why such a historical event was announced merely four days prior as fait accompli without any sort of legislative oversight, given the sensitive nature of the Taiwan-China relationship.
For his part, China’s Xi has been increasingly provocative in asserting claims in the South China Sea. At a time when tensions between China and the United States itself are rising, action on the Taiwan front savors more of domination than conciliation.
With this kind of imbalance between negotiators, this is quite possibly the worst time for Taiwan to have such a historic meet-up. Rex How, a former KMT presidential advisor, publicly noted on Facebook, a popular social network in Taiwan, “I agree that if the meeting takes place under equal and dignified circumstances without giving up our sovereignty, then it is something good; otherwise it will be a disaster. So let us see what happens next.” The circumstances and timing around the Ma-Xi meeting do not bode well. Taiwan’s society is watching anxiously for what comes out of this rude surprise — and so should the rest of the world.
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