Ma-Xi Meeting: It Cuts Both WaysContinued talks provide additional means for Taiwan to indirectly influence China and create pressure on Beijing to keep the relationship alive
On Nov. 7, Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平) and Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) met in Singapore, the first such meeting since the creation of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in 1949. The Xi-Ma meeting included discussion over the 1,600-plus missiles which, Xi claims are not specifically targeting Taiwan (despite analyses elsewhere), Taiwan’s international space and entry into the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), a hotline between the two sides, and opportunities for junior college graduates in China to study in Taiwanese universities, which already have the capacity to handle 20,000 more students.
Although most Taiwanese are supportive of cross-strait talks in the abstract (examples can be found here and here), the timing of this talk — two months before Taiwan’s presidential and legislative elections — caused concern. Ma contended that the meetings were not connected to the upcoming election; however, supermajorities of those polled by Taiwan’s Election and Democratization Study (TEDS) in March and June said they distrusted Ma, and Ma’s approval rates only hover around 20 percent. Both hurt the Chinese Nationalist Party’s (KMT) electoral chances in January 2016.
Chinese efforts to influence Taiwanese election are also not new, as seen in the 1996, 2000, and 2004 presidential elections, tapering off when the expectation of KMT victory in elections from 2008-2012 made such efforts largely unnecessary. Xi Jinping thus must be fully aware of the potential that any Chinese action could influence Taiwanese elections counter to their preferences as seen prior to the Ma election.
As a symbolic meeting, both Xi and Ma reiterated that China is willing to build upon cross-strait measures enacted under the Ma administration. The meeting is also a reminder of souring cross-strait relations under the last Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) president, Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁), attempting to link the DPP’s past to its present, despite the fact that the current DPP candidate, Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文), is not Chen. Both Xi and Ma may have seen the meeting as a means to boost KMT electoral fortunes by focusing the election on cross-strait stability, but considering recent polls (examples can be found here, here, and here), efforts look like a “Hail Mary” pass.
Writing in The Associated Press, Christopher Bodeen claims that “the biggest obstacle to future talks could be Taiwan’s ferociously democratic system.” It is true that Taiwan’s democratization complicates cross-strait relations, but such oft-repeated claims about democracy as a stumbling block oddly places the burden on the reformed rather than the non-reformed regime. As I suggested before, Taiwan’s democratization enhanced internal sovereignty while potentially increasing political tensions with China. Prior to Taiwan’s democratization, the possibility always existed of substantive negotiations between the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and KMT regarding cross-strait relations without the support of the Taiwanese public. Democratization ended this possibility. Democracy goes beyond free and fair elections, to include elected officials accountable to the public. Evident with the Sunflower Movement protests, the Taiwanese public is increasingly concerned about KMT dealings with China. Chinese officials avoid acknowledging how democratization changes the basis for negotiations, a denial with ramifications for Hong Kong as well.
Both Tsai Ing-wen and People First Party presidential candidate James Soong (宋楚瑜) suggested wasted opportunities in the Xi-Ma meeting, with the so-called 1992 Consensus’ “One China, different interpretations” not mentioned in the opening remarks. Despite Ma’s claim that the 1992 Consensus remains “a mastery of ambiguity,” this glosses over multiple obstacles, namely that the consensus predates democratic presidential elections in Taiwan and disrespects democratization by binding future leaders, DPP or otherwise.
As Nathan Batto, an assistant research fellow at the Institute of Political Science, Academia Sinica, observed, a discussion of the 1992 Consensus that glosses over different interpretations of “one China” limits Taiwan’s flexibility, appears more consistent with ousted KMT presidential candidate Hung Hsiu-chu’s (洪秀柱) “one China, same interpretation” stance, and conflicts with public opinion. For example, the Taiwan Indicators Survey Research in October asked respondents to evaluate a series of terms best describing cross-strait relations, with 69.3% supporting the characterization of “a different country on each side.” This contrasts with only 20.3% supporting the 1992 Consensus phraseology. Furthermore, since 1992, rates of Taiwanese identification have nearly quadrupled, from 17.6 percent to 59 percent, where Chinese identity has fallen to a mere 3.3 percent. Even as the vast majority of the population still supports maintaining the ambiguously defined status quo vis-à-vis relations with China, its continuation equates to de facto independence.
Intentionally or not, the Xi-Ma meeting shows that direct talks between the heads of state are possible, even if China refrains from referring to these as state-to-state talks (both sides did agree to split the cost of dinner as to suggest a meeting of equals). While some suggest this sets a precedent for Taiwan’s next president to meet directly with Western leaders, less ambitious ramifications deserve greater attention. Continued talks provide additional means for Taiwan to indirectly influence China. For example, observers would be remiss to ignore the difference between a democratically elected Ma willing to extend his press conference to answer questions, which China’s CCTV failed to broadcast, compared to Xi delegating this duty to Taiwan Affairs Office Minister Zhang Zhijun (張志軍), who answered three questions. Furthermore, Xi may be reluctantly accepting Tsai’s expected electoral victory in January, but wishes to put additional pressure for continued cross-strait talks. Tsai has not ruled out such meetings. However, this cuts both ways, creating additional pressures on Xi in future if he fails to follow through on similar overtures to Taiwan after Ma.
Timothy S. Rich is an assistant professor in political science at Western Kentucky University. His main research focuses on the impact of electoral reforms in Taiwan, South Korea, and Japan compared to similar legislative systems. His broader research interests include electoral politics, domestic and international politics of East Asia, and qualitative and quantitative methods.