With only two months and a half to go before Taiwan’s next presidential election on 16 January 2016, Taiwan and China unexpectedly announced their leaders will meet in Singapore for the first time in 66 years.

In the wake of this surprising development, administration officials tried to explain the nature of the trip and assured the public there will not be any groundbreaking agreements from this meeting.

Charles Chen, spokesperson for Taiwan’s Presidential Office, told reporters that the meeting is aimed at “consolidating peaceful relations and maintaining the status quo between the two sides of the Taiwan Strait,” a line that closely tracks the administration’s definition of its China policy.

Taiwan’s Mainland Affairs Council (MAC), the island’s cabinet-level China policy decision-making body, also felt the need to clarify. MAC Minister Andrew Hsia told a press conference that the “meeting of the leaders of the two sides of the Strait will demonstrate the two sides’ determination to maintain peace and prosperity in the Taiwan Strait and create a new milestone in the development of cross-Strait relations.”

Hsia further quoted a MAC poll as showing that more than 80 percent of Taiwanese people support a meeting between leaders from both sides as long as it is held under the precondition of “equal dignity and transparency.”

However, what the poll did not include was whether people support a president with less than seven months left in his term meeting with the leader of China, which still has thousands of missiles aimed at Taiwan.

In fact, as much as the administration believes the meeting will benefit Taiwan and their party’s election prospects, this move is a double-edged sword.

Backfire

Political observers such as Gerrit van der Wees of US based Formosan Association for Public Affairs (FAPA) was quoted by the Strait Times of Singapore, saying that Ma is trying to “turn the tide” in Taiwan’s presidential election. The KMT’s chairperson and candidate Eric Chu still trails behind Tsai by two digits in local polls. The KMT, it seems, believes that it helps them to steer the focus of the campaigns toward cross-Strait issues, which has been considered the sore spot of the opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) in the past.

However, many polls indicate that Taiwan-China relations may no longer be the KMT’s trump card when it comes to elections. A recent study by Academia Sinica researcher Chen Chih-jou found that Taiwanese people trust the DPP more than the KMT when it comes to handling cross-strait issues. In 2013, 49% of those polled said that they trusted the KMT more than the DPP in cross-strait issues. Two years later, in 2015, the number of those who trust the KMT dropped to 34%, lower than the 46% who said they trust the DPP.

Indeed, the DPP’s Chairperson and presidential candidate Tsai Ing-wen said that as Ma will end his presidency in May 2016, he should not be making any promises meeting with China’s head of state, for which he cannot take responsibility after his departure from office. The DPP, Tsai said, is suspicious over the timing of the meeting and warned that cross strait issues should not be used as an election ploy.

Even Legislative Speaker Wang Jing-pyng, a veteran KMT politician welcomed the upcoming Ma-Xi meeting with caution. His three points on the meeting are: “First, the leaders should meet on an equal footing and with dignity; second the Legislature supports any dialogue which is advantageous to cross-Strait peace and regional stability; third, we hope that the dialogue is closely connected to the nation’s development, could respond to the public’s expectations, and achieve its end successfully.” The mood in Taiwan is anxious, at best.

Ma’s Own Words

With Taiwan’s public on edge, President Ma himself spoke at an international press conference this morning, again stressing that his goal is stability. He reiterated that his upcoming meeting will mark the first step toward institutionalizing meetings between the leaders of the two sides of the Taiwan Strait.

Ma said that the fifty-minute closed-door meeting will be to take cross strait relations to “another level.” He said he is a “bridge builder” for future Taiwan leaders to pursue peace based on the 1992 Consensus—that both sides agree Taiwan is part of China (but Ma insists that “China” can be interpreted to mean Taiwan’s Republic of China government). Ma insisted that his meeting could help reduce hostilities in the short term.

“I cannot predict if the next president will follow my policies, but maintaining the status quo is the will of Taiwanese people,” said Ma.

Perhaps what Ma is really trying to achieve is to put his name down on the official definition of Taiwan-China relations before he hands over that opportunity to his successor. In other words, Ma wants to cement his legacy squarely on the adherence to the 1992 Consensus, with the approval of a handshake with Xi Jinping. Even a symbolic gesture like that would elevate the 1992 Consensus to a status of doctrine for both sides, which cannot be easily overturned.

And such intention is probably shared by Xi as well. As the DPP is leading in polls ahead of the January election, China wants to continue the current course of cross strait development as much as possible, by defining the conflict between the two sides as an issue of civil separation within one state.

Furthermore, China would like to create an atmosphere internationally that Taiwan is on China’s side, especially with tensions rising with the United States and Southeast Asia over the South China Sea. National Taiwan University Political Science Professor Tao Yi-feng commented in an op-ed that the KMT’s prospect in the 2016 election is not of Xi’s concern. Rather, Xi aims to portray China as a “peacemaker” in the region by having a historical Ma-Xi meeting while steering the direction of ties to be more aligned with China’s interests.

For President Ma, he vows to deliver cross-Strait peace and reduce the uncertainty in the relations between Taiwan and China. However, as Taiwan-China relations develop, no change can be single-handedly decided by the leaders. Rather, the people must have the final say. Ma and Xi might hope to “institutionalize” the 1992 Consensus by the historical meeting; however, what they really need do is to take into account the vibrant Taiwanese civil society and the growing Taiwan identity that is steering the island away from the bridge built by President Ma.

With Ma’s disappointing approval ratings at 20.1%, If Ma seriously wants to achieve a positive historical legacy in his cross strait policies, he will have to regain the public’s trust first.

(Feature photo of Ma Ying-jeou, by Voice of America.)

Gwenyth Wang

Gwen is a PhD candidate in politics at the University of Warwick. She has a Master’s degree in democracy and democratisation from the University College London. She has previously worked in Taipei, Los Angeles and London – in fields ranging from think-tanks to academia. She is currently based in Taipei and tweets at @GwenythWR.