On Saturday, November 7, Singapore will host the first ever meeting between the leaders of Taiwan and mainland China.  This breakthrough summit is evidently intended to reinforce the trends toward peace and development across the Taiwan Strait that prevailed under Taiwan’s President Ma Ying-jeou since 2008. 

Ma’s tenure, and now his legacy, marked a sharp departure from the confrontational policies of his predecessor, the Taiwan Democratic Progressive Party’s (DPP) Chen Shui-bian.  With an election in Taiwan just over nine weeks away, and the opposition DPP candidate well ahead in the polls, Chinese leader Xi Jinping appears to want to remind Taiwan’s voters that the positive trends under President Ma could be at risk if they choose the DPP again.

Douglas H. Paal
Paal previously served as vice chairman of JPMorgan Chase International and as unofficial U.S. representative to Taiwan as director of the American Institute in Taiwan.
More >

Arrangements for a meeting of this sort involve every kind of sensitivity, since the leaders of the Nationalist and Communist parties have long been rival claimants for the mantle of governing all of China.  They do not recognize each other formally, so terminology is tricky.  Officials have revealed that they will refer to each other in the Singapore meeting as the “leader” of Taiwan and the mainland, rather than use the formal title of president.  They will call each other “Mr. Ma” and “Mr. Xi.”

The secrecy surrounding the preparations for the meeting contributed to the sense of shock and anger expressed by many opponents and of surprise by many supporters on Taiwan.  Whether satisfactory terms for such a sensitive meeting could have been achieved without the cloak of secrecy is something for historians to wrestle with, but in any event Taiwan officials lost considerable control of their messages when the story was leaked to an opposition newspaper.  (It must be a source of angst in the Presidential Office that someone trusted enough to be given access to the information was nonetheless motivated to hand it over to the opposition.)

The surprising nature of the news gave opponents of the ruling party on Taiwan ample opportunity to allege last minute efforts by Ma to “sell out” Taiwan, engage in “black box” decision making with insufficient public consultation, and to tie the hands of  his successor with more extensive engagement with the mainland.  Tsai Ing-wen, the DPP presidential frontrunner, issued a multipart statement, first emphasizing the positive:

“I want to emphasize that we are happy to see communications between both sides of the Strait, in accordance with the principles of “equal respect”, “transparency” and “without political preconditions.” We would view these endeavors in a positive light if such communication is helpful to facilitate cross-strait peace, to improve communication and dialogue and is beneficial to mutual interests. In other words, if the arrangements between President Ma and President Xi were transparent--that is, allowing our citizens to understand what will be discussed; what will be promised, if anything; to have legislative and public opinion oversight, and genuinely implement these three principles of “equal respect”, “transparency” and “without political precondition.” I believe this will greatly reduce public anxieties.”

Then she delivered her warning punch: “I would like to issue a solemn reminder to President Ma that cross-strait relations should not be handled based on political parties’ self-interest. Taiwan’s future should not be traded away for short-term electoral success. We all wish for a stable, peaceful cross-strait relationship; therefore, the principles of “equal respect,” “transparency” and “without political precondition” should not be sacrificed in anyway. We will stand with the people.”

Ma’s officials responded by assuring the public that there will be no agreements reached at the summit.  Nor will there be a joint statement.  They emphasized the meeting is to reinforce cross-strait peace and prosperity and to nurture the status quo, not make new initiatives.

Once Taiwan officials knew the leak was out, they hastily notified relevant officials in Washington, on a principle that Ma Ying-jeou has frequently made a point of pride: no surprises.  Still, it was pretty surprising to the Americans.  The official U.S. response was positive, in line with long standing policy support for easing cross-strait tensions and developing commercial and popular exchanges.  At least this should not have been a surprise.  U.S. officials privately are equally clear that they hope the meeting in Singapore will bring a positive influence to Taiwan-mainland relations.

But many current and former officials also privately convey fears that the meeting and its results will reverberate on Taiwan and the mainland in ways that may in fact not contribute to stability and maintenance of the status quo.  The DPP has long had better political street-fighting skills than the KMT, and it knows how to exploit opportunities to denigrate the KMT leadership. 

Public opinion polls have continuously shown growing suspicion of China’s ever closer economic embrace of Taiwan.  This combines in a volatile cocktail with resentment of recent unilateral Chinese actions regarding flight routes over the Taiwan Strait and travel documents to the mainland.  And there is malaise about Taiwan’s diplomatic isolation, slower economic growth than in previous eras, and the mismatch between Taiwan’s youth and labor markets that has limited their perceived opportunities.

All this suggests that avoiding a setback in cross-strait relations will take the concentrated efforts of both leaders and their teams in Singapore, let alone trying to turn around the current negative drift in public attitudes toward the mainland.  Both leaders are reported to have a public meeting, then a private session, then dinner together.  Each will have his own news conference to discuss their meetings. 

What President Xi says will have at least three audiences.  The mainland audience will expect him at least to show he is working toward eventual reunification of Taiwan with China.  The skeptical (David facing Goliath) Taiwan audience will look for signs of increased pressure on the island, for efforts to undermine the DPP in the coming election, perhaps with last minute concessions to Taiwan, such as permitting an increased presence in international functional organizations.  Here among the several ironies is that what Beijing might consider a generous offer could be seen in Taipei as a devious trap.

The third audience is the United States, which may sense Xi is in fact already looking past Ma to his need eventually to deal with Tsai.  If Tsai wins, relations with Taiwan will be part of the background for Xi’s own political agenda at home, with an imminent 19th Party Congress in 2017 and all the changes attendant on that.  Xi should want to position himself as securely as possible regarding Taiwan before then. 

A “two leaders” meeting will be a very high bar for Tsai to jump to maintain the status quo, as she has pledged to do. This could give Beijing greater leverage to decide what basis for the relationship is good enough, if it is not to be based on the “1992 consensus” that prevails under Ma, as Tsai in the past has insisted it will not be.  And by meeting with Ma, offering sweetness and light, Xi gains a talking point to use with the U.S. if ultimately she fails to compete in appearing reasonable about cross-strait relations.

President Ma’s audience will primarily be in Taiwan, though Washington and Beijing will watch him closely.  Ironically, again, the less that Ma’s remarks appear to be aimed at tactically helping the KMT in the upcoming election and the more they address strategic principles of peace and prosperity, the more they are likely to defuse criticism at home and bolster support for KMT candidates.  He is very likely to understand that and stick to a constructive script.

Of course, subliminal communications will also play a role in addition to the words of the leaders.  Both the mainland and Taiwan share a culture of sophisticated protocol, and one should expect the leaders to treat each other before the cameras with appropriate dignity.  But the capacity of Taiwan’s media to construe one man’s dignified behavior as a demeaning insult should not be underestimated.  As any political pro would say, the optics of the visit could prove very important to the message that emerges.

Finally, a word about the broader context:  In reaction to inroads made by the United States with its “rebalance” to Asia -- facilitated by China’s neighbors and their discomfort with Chinese assertive behavior -- China has for the past two years or so embarked on a policy one can term “counterbalance” in the Asia Pacific region to the American “rebalance.” 

Xi Jinping has since announced the “one belt and one road” initiatives to strengthen commercial and infrastructure ties with Southeast and Central Asian neighbors.  His government has produced the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank to finance those connections.  Xi has courted Aung San Suu Kyi after years of support for her Myanmar opponents in the military, after the Myanmar authorities visibly pulled away from China and toward the U.S.

Tensions have been lowered with Japan, as exemplified in last weekend’s trilateral summit in Seoul.  Russia and China are getting along better than in the last fifty years.  Xi has made several proposals for regional security architecture and has tried to keep tensions with the United States manageable.  The South China Sea may be an outlier due to the nationalist sensitivity about sovereignty.  Here only time will tell.

So 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.  This would be a major political point for Xi in selling his combination of strong leadership and mostly positive results for Chinese diplomacy.  By the same token, he will have given China’s always skeptical neighbors material reasons not always to resist Chinese preferences in deference to American interests.  This could become a quite substantial achievement over the next two years as the U.S. obsesses about elections and the next administration.

The article was originally published by Guancha in Chinese