Did Ma Meet Xi for His Political Legacy?

November 16, 2015Political Economyby East Asia Forum

Ma Ying-jeou's visit with Xi has been polarizing in Taiwan.

Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou met with Chinese President Xi Jinping in the first ever meeting between the leaders of the two countries on 7 November 2015 in Singapore.

The timing of the meeting is interesting and controversial. President Ma is an unpopular president whose term is about to end. His party, the Kuomintang (KMT), is widely predicted to lose both the next presidential and parliamentary elections. Many see Ma’s decision to meet Xi as an attempt to secure his historical legacy and provide a boost to his struggling party.

Xi is meeting Ma from a position of strength. He is the leader of the world’s second-largest economic and military power and the most powerful Chinese leader since Deng Xiaoping. Yet Xi has made an important symbolic concession by agreeing to address each other as ‘mister’, avoiding using each other’s official titles.

There is also an important international dimension to the meeting. For the past two years, Beijing has been pursuing an assertive policy in the East and South China Seas. Many neighbouring Asian states have been spooked and have turned to the United States, strengthening the Obama administration’s ‘pivot’ to Asia strategy. In this context, Beijing launched a series of initiatives to counter-balance the US strategy.

Xi has launched the so-called ‘One Belt and One Road’ initiative to cement trade and economic relations with Southeast and Central Asian neighbours. Beijing has dialled down tensions with Tokyo by taking part in a trilateral meeting with South Korea and Japan at the end of October.

Xi has even attempted to reduce tension with Vietnam, one of the most vocal opponents to China’s South China Sea policy, by visiting Hanoi in a show of socialist camaraderie before meeting Ma in Singapore. Though these measures may not amount to much, they are signs of Beijing’s efforts to reassure its jittery neighbours.

Xi’s overture to Ma may be part of this broader strategy. As Douglas Paal, former unofficial US representative to Taiwan, says, ‘it seems natural that Xi might want to add Taiwan to the picture of a calmer diplomacy on China’s periphery, if sovereignty issues can be managed adequately’.

Ma’s decision to meet Xi has been hugely polarising in Taiwan. Many, including the opposition Democratic Progress Party (DPP), have accused him of damaging Taiwan’s democracy. Ma’s supporters have hailed the trip as a truly historic meeting between two former enemies. They hope Ma will set a precedent to institutionalise future meetings between the leaders of the two countries.

One can commend Ma for his courageous decision to meet Xi. He has worked hard during his terms to improve the cross-Strait relationship and has deescalated tensions between Taiwan and China. He has not been able to convince the electorate of the benefits of closer ties with China. The Taiwanese public are growing increasingly sceptical of both Ma’s policies and Beijing.

The big question is, apart from its symbolic value, what will the historic meeting achieve? The most important outcome is all about setting a precedent. Taiwan and China have managed to reach a consensus on the conditions for a bilateral leader summit. The most important element is for both sides to maintain the political fiction of ‘One China’ — the so-called 1992 Consensus.

It seems that if Taiwan’s leaders are willing to play along, which the KMT has no trouble doing, Beijing is willing to be more flexible in its approach towards Taiwan. This formula is an anathema to the pro-independence DPP.

The practical effect of the Ma–Xi meeting will be to create a very high bar for DPP leader Tsai Ing-wen to jump to maintain the status quo, as she has pledged to do. The big test is whether the new Taiwanese president, who is likely to be Tsai, will take advantage of the new precedent. Similarly, will Xi agree to meet any DPP leaders, known for their pro-independence stance?

Tsai is in a much stronger position than the outgoing Ma to play the ‘Nixon in China’ role. As an advocate for pro-independence policy, she is inoculated against accusations of being a ‘Manchurian candidate’. If she could take advantage of the new precedent, the next meeting between a pro-independence Taiwanese president and a Chinese leader would be truly groundbreaking.

The next Taiwanese president also needs to find a more permanent solution for the current Taiwan–China standoff. For decades, the position of both parties in Taiwan has been to prolong the current status quo indefinitely. The reality is that Taiwan cannot indefinitely preserve the status quo. At some point in the future, China will force the issue.

Therefore, the job for future Taiwanese presidents is to preserve the country’s democracy against a nuclear-armed superpower. One possible route could be to lay down conditions for a permanent peace treaty or even nominal reunification. Taiwan’s leaders could ask Beijing to give up the option of invasion and make democratisation in China a precondition for a peace treaty or unification. If the DPP could take such a leap, Taiwan could regain a considerable degree of initiative in its struggle with Beijing.

For this to happen, Beijing needs to accept that it must deal with the pro-independence DDP, whose electoral fortunes are on the rise. The KMT’s stance is no longer welcome. More importantly, Xi and his successors have to accept that Taiwan has changed. It has new democratic and indigenous aspirations.

All these options may seem outlandish at the moment. However, preserving Taiwan’s democracy against an emerging superpower requires imagination and bold action. Now, none of the parties involved show signs of innovation in resolving one of the world’s most dangerous geopolitical fault lines.

What comes after the Ma–Xi meeting? is republished with permission from East Asia Forum

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