Ma and Xi Hold ‘Historic’ Meeting in SingaporeDespite the little substance to the summit, President Ma’s reference to ‘one China’ has sparked severe criticism back in Taiwan
For the first time since the creation of the People’s Republic of China after the end of the Chinese Civil War in 1949, the leaders of Taiwan and China met in Singapore on November 7, in a summit that has been widely described as “historic.” Historic it certainly was, and this was the big news internationally on Saturday. But as expected, photo ops and a long handshake aside, the landmark meeting yielded precious little substance and is unlikely to have much of an impact on future relations between Taiwan and China, as that will be decided elsewhere.
Media worldwide, which normally fail to pay attention to Taiwan, took a sudden interest in the place following the sudden announcement, late on November 3, that Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平) and Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) would hold a meeting in a third country on November 7. No sooner had the news spread than talking heads began talking of a “game changer,” of a new phase in relations across the Taiwan Strait, which until a few years ago had been regarded as a dangerous flashpoint.
However, it was clear from the beginning that the so-called summit would be merely a symbolic affair — a first, no doubt, but ultimately not an occasion where cross-strait relations would be shaped in any substantial way. The reason behind this is that President Ma, whose popularity stands at about 20% (after reaching a low of 9% a year ago) will be stepping down in May next year, and his party, the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT), faces a high prospect of defeat in the presidential and legislative elections that will be held on January 16 next year.
Thus, Mr. Xi’s historic meeting was with a man who isn’t trusted back home, a lame duck who doesn’t even head the KMT anymore after he was forced to step down in the wake of the party’s disastrous performance in local elections in November 2014.
For many, a meeting would be truly historic if it involved the person who is likely to be the next president of Taiwan and who will have enough time and strong enough a mandate to affect the relationship with Beijing.
Ma and Xi’s ability to change the rules of the game were also limited by democratic forces back in Taiwan, where support for dialogue with China, though high, is nevertheless scrutinized for any possibility that it might imply sacrificing the values, way of life, and political system that, among other things, give Taiwan its proud and idiosyncratic identity.
Small protests targeting the meeting were held starting on November 4, but never approached the severity of those that rocked the government in March and April 2014, when the legislature was occupied for three weeks over a controversial services trade agreement with China. Although people watched closely to see what would transpire in Singapore, and apprehensions were high in some circles, the majority of people in Taiwan also knew that it was in their power to neutralize whatever deal may have been made in Singapore at the ballot box in January. The historic event therefore never turned into a crisis because the public was well aware that President Ma is in no position to act unaccountably, and that if he did, his struggling party would face total disaster in the elections. Moreover, the summit was a typical KMT-CCP fest, which as usual left out the people altogether. Exchanges of this nature are something that the people of Taiwan have learned to treat with cynicism over the years.
Thus, the only thing that was left for Ma and Xi was symbolism. And that is exactly what they delivered. Add to that the usual warnings to the independence movement and the opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), and you have a complete picture of what happened in Singapore on Saturday. It was, to quote the Bard, much ado about nothing.
Minutes after President Ma’s plane landed in Singapore, something went wrong. Immigration authorities informed the Taiwanese press corps that was accompanying Ma and his delegation that their press credentials were not recognized by Singapore and must therefore be “reassigned.” As a result of the delay, Taiwanese journalists were unable to secure good positions at the venue, a fate that evidently was spared official Chinese press which quickly occupied the choice angles. Several Taiwanese journalists expressed their discontent vocally. Singaporean authorities also insisted that the press cards that were given to Taiwanese journalists refer to the year 2015 rather than 104 under the system used in the Republic of China (ROC), the official name for Taiwan.
Moreover, although the people who greeted the Xi delegation were allowed to wave small PRC flags, those accompanying Ma were limited to wearing a small ROC pin on their lapel.
Those were relatively minor incidents, but nevertheless a bad start to a meeting that was supposed to be occurring on the basis of equality and mutual respect.
At the Shangri-La Hotel, the venue of the meeting, security officers quickly responded when a young woman showed up displaying a large Nationalist (Republic of China) flag and escorted her out. Four Taiwanese activists, including one of the leaders of the Sunflower Movement, were denied entry into Singapore under unspecified “special provisions.” According to a source in Singapore, they were to be sent back to Taiwan at 1 am the next day.
Then, a little before 3 pm, the two men met.
Amid several bursts of camera speed-lights, a beaming Ma and the traditionally stoic Xi had their historic handshake before adjourning to a meeting room at 3 pm, where they each gave opening remarks in the presence of media.
President Xi, who spoke first, did not say anything we hadn’t heard before. “We are brothers,” he said, facing Ma across the table. “Blood is thicker than water,” he continued, the standard reference to the “shared ethnicity” on both sides of the Taiwan Strait.
Speaking next — and at this point watchers in China were treated to a panel of analysts rather than the Taiwanese president — Ma said that “behind us is a feeling of separation for 60 years and a longing to communicate,” adding that there was a need to “expand cross-strait cooperation and reinvigorate zhonghua minzu” under the “1992 Consensus” and the “one China” principle.
Continuing with his remarks, Ma said that both sides must “value what is most important to them,” which many observers regarded a reference to the democracy that is cherished by the Taiwanese. It was rather interesting that Ma couldn’t bring himself to use the D-word in the presence of President Xi, under whose leadership the nationwide crackdown on freedom of expression and Chinese civil society, as well as meddling in Hong Kong’s affairs, has intensified markedly in recent years.
More tellingly — and for all intents and purposes this was really the only drama today — Ma left out the standard add-on to Taipei’s version of “one China” that has been the basis of his cross-strait policy since 2008: he did not mention “different interpretations,” under which Beijing and Taipei “agree to disagree.”
Last month, the KMT dropped its highly unpopular presidential candidate, Hung Hsiu-chu (洪秀柱), in large part due to her “pro-China” views, which included an ill-received “one China, same interpretation” formula.
Interestingly, the official transcript distributed to journalists after the initial remarks did not contain Ma’s reference to the “one China” principle, sparking derision among journalists who hurried to share their displeasure on Facebook.
After the closed-door meeting between Ma and Xi, which lasted 10 minutes short of the planned one-hour, Taiwan Affairs Office (TAO) Minister Zhang Zhijun (張志軍) gave a rundown of the discussion to the media. Saying that cross-strait relations were “at a crossroads” — a reference, surely, to the high likelihood that the opposition DPP will prevail in the January 16, 2016, elections — Zhang, citing Xi, emphasized the need for both sides to abide by the “one China” principle and the 1992 consensus, warning of a “tidal wave” if one side failed to do so.
“For the past 60 years, people on both sides of the Taiwan Strait had looked at each other with yearning,” he said, adding that “independent forces” in Taiwan were “hurting the feelings” of people across the strait. Again citing Xi, Zhang added that Taiwanese independence was “the biggest threat to peace.”
Zhang nevertheless left the door open for a future DPP administration, saying that “as long as it recognizes the 1992 consensus,” anything was possible. He (Xi) also took an apparent snipe at Taiwanese allies, mainly the U.S. and Japan, by saying that Taiwan was a problem for zhonghua minzu to resolve — in other words, an internal matter.
The TAO minister only took three questions — one from state-run Xinhua, one from a Hong Kong media, and one from Want China Times, a Taiwan-based pro-KMT and pro-unification outlet.
Speaking after Zhang (Xi did not address reporters), President Ma said that this was just an “initial meeting” that was not intended to address “specific problems.” Ma also reaffirmed several times the need to abide by the 1992 consensus, adding that his efforts were “for the benefit of future generations” and were not intended “for a specific political party,” likely a response to the heavy criticism in the past days over the timing of the summit. Turning to the question of Taiwanese independence, which Xi had identified as the “greatest threat” to peace, Ma said that such an outcome, which would create “two Chinas” or “one China, one Taiwan,” was impossible because “the ROC constitution does not allow it.” He added that “good cross-strait relations should not be taken for granted.”
Asked if he had raised the issue of the 1,600 or so missiles that China directs at Taiwan, Ma said that he did and that Xi had reassured him that the missiles existed to meet “a variety of contingencies” and were not specifically targeted at Taiwan. While it is true that the Second Artillery Corps, which controls China’s ballistic missiles, counts several intercontinental and long-range missiles which could be used for strikes against a number of countries, a large proportion of those missiles — the short-range DF-11s, deployed along the coast of Fujian, among them — serve one purpose alone, and that is to attack Taiwan.
In all, Ma fielded 14 questions.
Meanwhile, in a sign that this was business as usual, DPP presidential candidate Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) did not interrupt her campaign schedule because of the summit in Singapore. In brief remarks during a stop in Yunlin, she expressed her disappointment with President Ma, whose remarks (“one China”) imposed “a straightjacket that limited the people’s choice in dealing with cross-strait relations.”
“A political restraint that is disrespectful to democratic procedure and the people’s desire will never be accepted by the Taiwanese people,” she said.
“We hoped that President Ma would safeguard the three principles for the Taiwanese people, including guaranteeing the right of the 23 million people here to choose, without political preconditions, and under equal respect. He has done none of that,” Tsai said.
(Updated 2015.11.07, 10:50pm: details on four activists detained.)
J. Michael Cole is editor in chief of Thinking Taiwan, a senior non-resident fellow at the China Policy Institute, University of Nottingham, and an Associate researcher at the French Center for Research on Contemporary China (CEFC) in Taipei.