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Tea Leaf Nation
The Cross-Strait Meeting’s Lasting Impact
The summit will affect how future Taiwanese leaders approach mainland China, and re-focus American attention on the relationship.
On Nov. 7, Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou stood on stage in Singapore and smiled, waved, and shook hands with Xi Jinping, the President of the People’s Republic of China. It was brief but historic, the first such meeting in 66 years between the president of a democratic self-governing island of 23 million, and the mainland behemoth just to its north that has long prioritized reunification — by force, if necessary — as a core interest. But while it will take some time, of course, to develop an accurate and comprehensive assessment of the Ma-Xi summit’s impact on Taiwan, the mainland, cross-strait relations and the Washington-Beijing-Taipei triangle, it’s safe to say this was not a “game changer” like the breakthrough 1972 meeting between U.S. President Richard Nixon and Chinese ruler Mao Zedong. Nor did it chart a new direction in bilateral relations comparable to the recent American move to break the long stalemate with Cuba. Nevertheless, the summit will have significant impacts on domestic public opinion within Taiwan and the mainland, as well as the structure of cross-strait relations moving forward.
In Taiwan, the summit’s immediate impact will be on the rhetoric and policy debates preceding January 2016’s presidential and legislative elections. It will result in higher priority to cross-strait relations in the developing electoral dialogue and make voters give somewhat less attention to often-decisive domestic issues. To a modest but insufficient extent this may boost the dismal political prospects of President Ma’s Nationalist Party, or KMT, currently trailing badly in the polls.
The summit’s more important impact on Taiwan goes beyond the election. Addressing the Taiwanese people, Xi said: “We are brothers connected by flesh even if our bones are broken, we are a family whose blood is thicker than water.” Because of Xi’s racial appeals, the Singapore meeting has further stimulated an increasingly widespread sense of Taiwanese nationalism. People on the island are asking themselves whether Xi’s bold appeal to the ties of common language, history, and culture that most Taiwanese share with most mainlanders does indeed make them “brothers” to the extent Xi asserted. Or is their relationship to mainlanders more akin to that of the 75 percent of Singapore’s population that is ethnically Chinese, yet quite clearly part of a distinct and independent political entity? Xi’s rhetoric appears likely to backfire with most people on Taiwan, making them recognize more clearly than ever the differences between their home and the mainland that history has created.
The summit’s effects on mainland public opinion are harder to judge because of the ruling Communist Party’s strict controls over the flow of information into and out of the country. But while the summit dialogue failed to pay explicit respect to the concept of freedom, Mainland censorship vividly reminded the Chinese people of its absence. Most people in the mainland do not have access to news and perspectives from Taiwan and its lively politics and media, but only to Motherland propaganda. But the educated and politically alert classes, accustomed to censorship and also adept at evading it, must have been particularly offended by their government’s refusal to allow them full access to the summit by restricting their exposure to Ma’s impressive performance. (For example, mainland state broadcaster China Central Television did not show Ma’s presser.) The contrast could not have been greater between Ma’s lively and genuine press conference and Xi’s refusal to hold one, as well as the performance of the bureaucrat chosen as Xi’s substitute, who read prepared remarks and then took only three softball questions.
The summit will nevertheless have a favorable effect on cross-strait relations, not by strengthening the impact of Ma’s already-conciliatory policies of the past seven years, but by helping to limit their expected erosion when he leaves the stage. Because of growing Taiwanese nationalism, a crisis in cross-strait relations may re-emerge no matter who wins the forthcoming elections. In that context, the summit represents an important effort to minimize adverse developments by offering a channel to continue high-level cross-strait relations. To use the current popular metaphor, it offers a bridge, or at least bolsters the one Ma has been building for years. And by its demonstration of equal dignity and status for Taiwan’s leader, it gives Tsai Ing-wen, leader of the current opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), an incentive to meet Xi halfway on that bridge in the likely event that she wins the upcoming election.
That does not make a Tsai-Xi meeting likely in the immediate future, assuming she wins. The price of Tsai’s admission to the bridge — acceptance of the latest, more-controversial-than-ever-version of the “One China” principle, this time without the crucial qualification of “differing interpretations” — is very likely to be too high for Tsai to accept. The DPP has always rejected the so-called “1992 consensus” supposedly agreed upon by representatives of the KMT and the mainland’s ruling Communist Party, even as that formula has always been understood to allow each side its own interpretation of what “One China” means. Acceptance of the newly-unmodified “One China” principle would signal surrender of the DPP’s long-nurtured hope for a Taiwan independent of China. Yet surely an attempt to organize another cross-strait leaders meeting should be made — without acceptance of any pre-conditions — after Tsai consolidates her hold on government.
One immediate question is whether the summit has subjected Taiwan to greater pressure than ever to endorse mainland China’s sweeping, ill-defined, claims to the South China Sea. Even though Taiwan’s government is still known as the Republic of China, it should continue to be cautious and independent in charting its course on this crucial challenge to international law, just as it has been with respect to mainland China’s dispute with Japan in the East China Sea.
The summit has also had an impact on United States relations with both sides of the strait. It has revived, if only temporarily, Americans’ awareness of Taiwan and of the importance of cross-strait developments. The U.S. government will undoubtedly want to push back at Xi’s attempt to exclude Washington from the Taiwan puzzle, as part of Beijing’s effort to reduce American influence in Asia generally. We can also expect further U.S. efforts to prevent deterioration in cross-strait relations if the DPP comes to power as anticipated.
I hope that the summit will also lead Americans, fully conscious of China’s growing prominence, to learn more about Taiwan’s immense progress in the past generation, especially in showing that at least one ethnically Chinese political-legal culture can develop a manageable democratic system that effectively protects internationally-guaranteed political and civil rights. Smart politics and good manners apparently kept Ma from flaunting this accomplishment in front of Xi and their Singapore hosts, who themselves have not reached Taiwan’s degree of freedom. Yet Taiwan’s security during the coming generation rests upon the extent to which the American people and their politicians and officials will support the island’s future progress. Taiwan’s democratic achievements constitute the most persuasive argument for continuing that support.