The Real Significance of the Xi-Ma SummitHint: It has nothing to do with future cross-strait meetings, imposed interpretations of the 1992 Consensus or even attempts to influence the upcoming elections in Taiwan
Over the past several days the academic and journalistic commentariat has been working overtime to come up with a convincing storyline to sum up the less than historic summit meeting between Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) and Chinese leader Xi Jinping (習近平) in Singapore on Nov. 7. The most commonly bruited candidates, none of which are mutually exclusive, include an attempt by Xi (probably with Ma’s collusion) to impose a more China-amenable interpretation of the “1992 Consensus” on future Taiwanese leaders; an attempt by Ma (or by Xi, or by both of them) to influence the results of Taiwan’s upcoming presidential and parliamentary elections; and an attempt by Ma to secure for himself a favorable place in history. There are probably other interpretations, but for the time being these are the standard theories that have been advanced. In a strictly conventional sense, they are relatively helpful in understanding what went on when Ma and Xi met.
In a deeper sense, however, they may be missing the point. When it comes to evaluating the real significance of the Ma-Xi meeting, the commentariat would probably be better served by focusing its attention not so much on the 1992 Consensus or the upcoming Taiwanese elections, but rather on the new narrative for Taiwanese politics and Taiwanese identity that the meeting helped to generate. Underscoring this point is the wide diffusion that this new narrative enjoyed. On an otherwise slow news day on Saturday, the Ma-Xi meeting was top of the pops on major international outlets like the BBC, the New York Times, and for that matter, just about any other foreign media organization with even a scintilla of self-respect. It was by far the most attention that Taiwan has received on the international stage in recent memory, even surpassing the quadrennial election cycle that, in normal times, is its single most compelling entry.
Which is a very good thing for Taiwan, not least because of what the narrative says about it. Up until the last six months or so, if the international media noted Taiwan’s existence at all, it was almost invariably in the context of its old political narrative — the one selected by China and the U.S. back in 2008, when Ma was first elected president. In its essence that narrative holds that after a protracted period of “irresponsible brinksmanship,” adult leadership finally returned to the presidential office in Taipei, guarantying a new era of strategic stability and commercial convergence for peoples on both side of the Taiwan Strait, all this amid decreasing political tensions and burgeoning economic opportunities. While the narrative was never completely true (and as time went on, less and less so), it did at least possess the virtue of durability, surviving (among other things) Ma’s precipitous drop in the Taiwanese public opinion polls, the revolutionary impact of the Sunflower Movement on Taiwanese politics, the unprecedented thrashing endured by Ma’s Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) in the November 2014 local elections, and the KMT’ near-death experience following the ill-advised selection of Hung Hsiu-chu (洪秀柱) as their 2016 presidential candidate. No one who perpetuated that standard narrative looked at it very closely, not least because its authors worked so hard at keeping it alive.
At least until now. In the immediate run-up to the Xi-Ma meeting in Singapore, all of the narrative’s compelling deficiencies finally caught up with it, and it deservedly fell by the wayside. To be sure, most media covering the Ma-Xi meeting did take care to mention that during Ma’s tenure, relations between Taiwan and China had greatly improved, particularly in the economic sphere, where more than 20 bilateral agreements have been signed, and a veritable explosion has taken place in the number of Chinese tourists visiting Taiwan and the number of flights traversing the Taiwan Strait. But these same media outlets were also careful to emphasize — and this is the critical point — that in the seven-and-a-half years that Ma has been in office, Taiwanese have become less and less amenable to seeing themselves as Chinese (as opposed to Taiwanese), less and less amenable to accepting China’s dictate that they renounce their-hard won democratic freedoms in favor of Chinese-imposed authoritarianism, and more and more committed to defending their de facto political independence in the face of unremitting Chinese pressure. This constitutes an immense change, with significant implications for Taiwan’s future.
Consider for a moment the following examples of the media’s Taiwan-related coverage, which are only the tip of the iceberg:
“Voters of the democratic, self-ruled island have grown increasingly wary of China’s embrace,” wrote the New York Times on the day the meeting took place, “and last year student-led protesters occupied Taiwan’s legislature for nearly a month to thwart a trade deal with China in what became known as the Sunflower Movement.”
Or this from the Wall Street Journal: “Taiwan has developed into a robust democracy, with public opinion polls showing broad support for keeping relations with the mainland as they are. Mr. Ma’s engagement policies, while popular with some in the business community, have cost his Nationalist Party, or Kuomintang, popular support. The opposition is leading in polls to recapture the presidency in January, and in advance of his summit with Mr. Xi, Mr. Ma promised there would be no agreements signed or made under the table.”
Or this from the Foreign Policy blog: “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.”
And finally this, from the Washington Post: “Unease about Taiwan’s growing dependence on China has grown while a political settlement seems as far off as ever. Last year, university students occupied parliament in Taipei to block ratification of a trade deal that they said would increase China’s hold over Taiwan, and tens of thousands of people later joined protests over the pace and lack of transparency of agreements with Beijing.”
Taken together, these examples represent a sea change in the way the international community perceives Taiwan. Almost inevitably this will be translated into a greater awareness of the true nature of Taipei’s relations with Beijing, and the true nature of its democratic politics. The exact extent of that awareness is likely to be measured by the willingness of Taiwan’s foreign partners to see the island for what it really is — a sovereign democracy with its own identity and its own political views — rather than “the renegade province” that China says it is. The media coverage generated by the Xi-Ma meeting in Singapore on Nov. 7 will go a long way in guaranteeing that his happens. That coverage, rather than the meeting itself, is likely to be remembered as by far its most enduring feature.
Peter Enav was head of The Associated Press bureau in Taiwan from April 2005 to April 2014.