The upcoming Nov 7 meeting between China’s President Xi Jinping with Taiwan’s President Ma Ying-jeou will be a significant historical milestone reminiscent of 1945 and 2005. Most of the attention thus far has been focused on how the meeting set in Singapore for this Saturday might revive Ma’s Kuomintang (KMT) party, but little has been written on Xi’s own reasons for meeting with Ma. Since President Ma has been requesting a meeting with President Xi for over a year, why did Xi agree to meet now?
Certainly, the upcoming national elections in January are at the top of everyone’s minds these days. As of this moment, the KMT is in serious trouble and desperately looking for a Hail Mary pass to improve its chances. Last year, the DPP won a landslide victory in the mayor and magistrate elections, which is often a bellwether for the national elections that follow. Opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) candidate Tsai Ing-wen is widely considered the front runner by a large margin in the presidential election to be held in January.
President Ma is constitutionally limited to his two completed terms so he can’t run for another term, but his meeting with Xi could improve the prospects for KMT-backed candidate Eric Chu if the meeting goes well. So far, commentary from Taiwan has mostly revolved around the impact to the elections.
But the meeting has deeper historical symbolism and regional geopolitics at play that goes beyond just one election in Taiwan.
Why the historic symbolism?
The meeting this Saturday harks to another watershed moment 70 years ago when Chiang Kai-shek met with Mao Tse-tung at the tail end of World War II. The KMT and Chinese Communist Party (CCP) had just combined forces to help defeat the Japanese. Somewhat analogous to Ma’s upcoming meeting with Xi, setting up a meeting between Chiang and Mao was not easy. In 1945, Chiang sent two telegrams to Mao asking to meet in Chongqing but was rebuffed when Mao offered his deputy Zhou Enlai instead. Mao finally agreed to meet in person upon Chiang’s third request.
Nearly five decades later, mid-level KMT representatives had another groundbreaking meeting with their counterparts from the People’s Republic of China (PRC) at a venue in Hong Kong. That meeting held in 1992 did not result in any new agreements, but the KMT later touted the outcome as the familiar though ambiguous “1992 Consensus,” where both sides tack their own definitions onto the term “one China.” Such a meeting between the two sides set the tone for relations ever since.
A little over a decade afterward, KMT Party Chairman Lien Chan and former Chinese President Hu Jintao shared another historic moment when they met in the Great Hall of the People in Beijing. Prior to the Lien-Hu meeting in 2005, no two senior party leaders at such high levels from both sides of the strait had met in decades. Lien Chan was the KMT party head, though he was not technically a government official at the time.
The upcoming meeting in Singapore raises the bar even higher, since it will be the first time two current presidents from the PRC and ROC have met, since Mao and Chiang in 1945 (at the time, they met as leaders of the CCP and KMT, respectively). However, Xi and Ma have each agreed to refer to the other as “mister” rather than “president,” for obvious political reasons.
Interestingly, this meeting in Singapore is Ma’s second attempt to meet with Xi, which harks to Chiang’s multiple attempts to meet with Mao. Ma previously tried to meet with Xi by offering to travel to Beijing to attend an Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) meeting back in October 2014. Xi declined at that time, likely due to the problem of the international backdrop of APEC, since Xi and Ma would be accompanied by leaders and representatives from 19 other Pacific Rim economies at the meeting.
In any case, whenever leaders from both sides meet for the first time, meetings at that level become institutionalized as “fair game.” The 1992 meetings paved the way for quasi-official and official government leaders to meet on a regular basis, and the 2005 Lien-Hu meeting kicked off further meetings between the KMT and CPP chairmen, now a commonplace occurrence.
Xi’s reasons, to name a few
The PRC — and Xi in particular — are looking at benefits for themselves, both with regional issues and at home domestically.
If the meeting turns out to be nothing more than a meet-and-greet, both sides can still claim the symbolism of have moved forward together in improving cross-strait relations. It would still be in line with the KMT’s track record of cooperation in its recent two terms: during that time Taiwan and the PRC signed 23 deals covering trade, transit and investment. The people of China, the people of Taiwan, officials in Washington, and others around the world would be relieved with a simple photo op — along with the promise of cooperation and regional stability that it would accompany. It would take little more than two smiles and a handshake.
The PRC, however, is also rapidly losing its soft power in Taiwan. Last year, hundreds of thousands of students in Taiwan protested during the Sunflower Movement as a sign of their distrust toward the PRC’s growing influence over the island. The internal struggles and crackdowns in China are commonly known to Taiwan, and they are not helping. The more threatening and unpleasant China appears, the more the people of Taiwan fear embracing Beijing. A highly anticipated event such as a meeting between China’s and Taiwan’s presidents could marginally improve Taiwan’s impression of China, if all goes well.
More substantively, the meeting on Saturday could be an instrumental way for the PRC to consolidate political gains it made with Taiwan under the KMT, before an anticipated turnover to a new DPP administration. According to the Associated Press, the meeting this Saturday could be Xi’s final chance to push for closer economic and political ties with Taiwan ahead of Taiwan’s elections. It would lock in political and economic cooperation through the precedent of summit meetings, so that the DPP would be restricted to continuing existing practices.
The upcoming Saturday meeting could also soften the world’s impression of China, as China continues to expand its regional influence. On the one hand, China approaches bilateral and multilateral forums with fists full of investment yuan. China has also recently created the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, which has been welcomed by developing countries in the region. China’s diplomacy since the late 1990s has been an impressive shift overall from the isolation of earlier decades.
On the other hand, China also appears menacing towards its neighbors. They wholeheartedly reject a return to historical roles as China’s “tributary states,” and clash against its excessive territorial claims in the South China Sea. To hedge its bets on the future, Japan is improving its military capabilities across the board with surveillance drones, submarines, and other platforms amidst controversy of its constitutional ban on keeping armed forces. Those who want to balance China include longtime US allies Japan, Australia, South Korea, but also countries who were once neutral or hostile against the US: Vietnam, India, Indonesia, and the Philippines.
A friendly meeting with Ma — considering that Taiwan-China is a historical powder keg — could help Xi craft an image of cooperation that reassures the region about China’s motives and actions.
Attention Away From Domestic Troubles
Refocusing domestic attention on this Taiwan meeting will also help take the edge off of Xi’s harsh consolidation of power in recent years inside China, which has estranged many in the Chinese bureaucracy. According to historian Zhang Lifan, “From the bottom of his heart, Xi Jinping wants to be a strong man.” In addition, the Chinese president once told Russian President Vladimir Putin that their “personalities” are quite similar.
Xi’s tactics for consolidating power have been his feared anti-corruption campaigns, in addition to cracking down on street protests and censoring dissension over the Internet. By bringing Taiwan closer towards unification — considering that China sees this as an existential eventuality — Xi would further consolidate power if he can leave the meeting looking as if Ma has made concessions to China.
A successful Xi-Ma meeting would also shift the focal reference point in Beijing’s domestic struggles with ethnic unrest. To the CCP, the Taiwan issue juxtaposes neatly with China’s Uyghur and Tibet issues — Some Uyghurs and Tibetans defy the CCP, but they are of different ethnicity within the same sovereign country; Taiwan is composed of the same Han ethnicity but in arguably separate sovereignties. China considers Xinjiang, Tibet and Taiwan to be “core interests,” but they present vastly different types of challenges for Beijing. A friendly meeting between Xi and Ma would draw the attention of China’s domestic audience and the world media away from intractable struggles within China, to pleasant opportunities for peaceful resolution internationally, with Taiwan.
Xi wants to continue to implement his presidential agenda. It starts with cleaning out China’s endemic corruption, as well as his political rivals; it centers on building his “China Dream” through continuing economic growth and harmonizing disruptive opposition; and it drives a more regionally and globally ambitious China in creating relationships along Central Asia, the Indian Ocean, and Sub-Saharan Africa.
To do all this requires gaining enough power to enable freedom to implement reforms, unfettered by rival domestic factions. Furthermore, a pesky pro-independence Taiwan that is near China’s underbelly could develop into a major distraction away from achieving other goals. Xi’s meeting with Ma in Singapore would fulfill these personal — and CCP — national aims alike.
For Xi, the upcoming meeting between Xi and Ma could certainly be a symbolic gesture towards closer relations between China and Taiwan, while possibly easing some tensions between the United States and China. In the short run, a positive picture of China and Taiwan’s leaders together would improve China’s image in the minds of its neighbors, even as China continues to expand its influence in the region and beyond. Less certain is the medium term, which depends on two things: in Taiwan, on any fresh policies of the new administration in Taiwan and whether it has a public mandate to reject the results of the meeting; in China, on whether it continues any goodwill that may result from the meeting.
In the long term, the future status of the Taiwan-China relationship would, more than ever, be decided through the institutionalization of high-level summit meetings. While diplomatic dialogue is preferable to military action, these meetings mean that progress may come sooner than expected, and the people of Taiwan and China must think deeper, and quicker, about what the end game would look like.