Ma’s legacy and Xi’s strategy: the way ahead for cross-strait relations

By: Lauren Dickey

Mainland China and Taiwan, divided by a small strait and historical debates of sovereignty and statehood.
Mainland China and Taiwan, divided by a small strait and historical debates of sovereignty and statehood.

A meeting that was sixty-six years in the making began with a minute-long handshake and the cacophony of cameras on rapid-fire as Chinese President Xi Jinping and Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou greeted the press from the rostrum at the Shangri-La Hotel in Singapore. The November 7th tête-à-tête was the first time the leaders of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and the Kuomintang (KMT) have met since civil war forced the KMT to flee to Taiwan in 1945. After greeting the press, the presidents delivered their opening comments before having a closed-door dialogue and one final press briefing. All in all, the leaders spent no more than a few hours with one another. However, their remarks and the historic meeting will set the tone and pace for the trajectory of ties between Beijing and Taipei for the months and years ahead, particularly under new Taiwanese leadership.

The Xi-Ma meeting could not have come at a more controversial time. It was a meeting shrouded in secrecy at the outset. Campaigns are well underway for the 2016 presidential elections in Taiwan. Current polls suggest that the opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) candidate Tsai Ying-wen will oust the ruling KMT to claim the presidency. The last time the DPP led the island, between 2000 and 2008 under Chen Shui-bian, calls for Taiwanese independence caused quite the political headache for Beijing, forcing overtly coercive responses aimed at deterring Taipei from any formal declarations of statehood.

The history-making moment of Xi meeting Ma was rooted in a series of prior lower-level conversations all aimed at ensuring stability in cross-strait relations. In 1992, the mainland China-based Association for Relations Across the Taiwan Straits (ARATS) and the Taiwan-based Straits Exchange Foundation (SEF) meeting in British Hong Kong yielded the so-called ‘1992 Consensus,’ the notion that both sides of the Taiwan Strait recognize there is only one China, with both mainland China and Taiwan belonging to the same China, but allowing both sides to interpret the meaning of ‘one China’ to their own definition. With this vague foundation in place, one year later, ARATS chairman Wang Daohan and SEF chairman Koo Chen-fu met in Singapore, side-stepping debates of ‘one China’ in favor of promoting trade and people-to-people exchanges, and setting in motion an unofficial medium for cross-strait dialogue. It was only when former Taiwanese President Lee Teng-hui proposed ‘state-to-state’ relations in 1999 that the Wang-Koo conversations were suspended, a move reflecting concerns that Taiwan was inching towards independence from mainland China. There have since been a steady stream of official exchanges and delegation visits between the two sides, fostering mutual understanding and deepening awareness of perspectives from each side of the Strait.

Some cross-strait experts have been eager to dismiss the Xi-Ma meeting as purely symbolic in nature; others have argued that Xi and Ma did not meet on truly equal footing; and still others have criticized the meeting for failing to represent the Taiwanese population, since the DPP was not present at the discussion table. These assessments miss the point. Mainland China knows that it cannot easily sway the votes of the Taiwanese electorate. The Xi-Ma meeting was a wisely timed political move by Beijing to set the tone for engagement with the likely DPP president beginning in early 2016. Ma and Tsai agree that the Taiwan public has a say on cross-strait policy; but the two disagree on the importance of the 1992 Consensus. With Xi and Ma having agreed to continue to respect the 1992 Consensus, what emerges is a tenuous political calculation for a future DPP administration. The Xi-Ma meeting has created a framework in which the next president must calibrate policy vis-à-vis mainland China, a smart political strategy from both sides to ensure the maintenance of the status quo while preventing Taiwanese independence.

In their respective comments with the press, Xi and Ma reiterated points echoing the familiar status quo in cross-strait relations: no war, no unification, no independence. Xi opened with an emphasis on inseparability and peaceful development; he emphasized a need to ‘show the world that the Chinese people across the Straits have the ability to handle our own issues’ on the premise of the 1992 Consensus. Ma kicked off the dialogue with higher hopes, pitching a five-point proposal for peaceful development: consolidate the 1992 Consensus; decrease enmity, increase peaceful resolutions; expand cross-strait exchanges; create a cross-strait hotline; and cooperate in pursuit of rejuvenating the Chinese nation. Ma’s proposal ensures he retains an influence over the island’s continued rapprochement with mainland China, even beyond his presidency, as well as a place in Taiwanese history textbooks.

From the final press briefings conducted separately by each side, it appears that Xi took the time in private to air his own list of priorities for cross-strait ties. Xi made clear the Chinese commitment to the 1992 Consensus as well as continued, and firm, opposition to Taiwanese independence. Like Ma, he argued for enhanced cooperation across the Strait, particularly in the economic realm. Xi also noted that both sides must be ‘united’ for the purpose of keeping peaceful relations and maintaining Chinese sovereignty. But one must not be quick to conclude that ‘united,’ represents reunification, as it could conceptually represent cross-strait consensus on areas of mutual interest. Ma addressed the long-standing concerns of Chinese missiles pointed at various strategic outposts on the island, but was brushed off somewhat surprisingly by Xi with the reassurance that the missiles are not aimed at Taiwan.

While the Xi-Ma summit may, overall, seem to have upheld the tried and true course of discussing easier economic and cultural issues without touching upon the sensitive subject of sovereignty, this is not to suggest that the summit does not signal a new era of progress. Mutual preference for the status quo is clear; but, so, too is the implicit demand for the next Taiwanese president to continue striking an appropriate balance in developing Taipei’s ties with Beijing.

As adamant as Tsai Ying-wen was in her opposition to the Xi-Ma summit, the new chapter of history will force the DPP under Tsai’s leadership to innovatively strategize and mold cross-strait policies. The Xi-Ma meeting is an opportunity for Tsai et al to work within the Taiwanese democratic system in thinking creatively along the boundaries of the 1992 Consensus. Ma’s meeting with Xi does not preclude the Taiwanese population’s right to choose their own future. Presidents Ma and Xi did not commit the island to an unreasonable trajectory in upholding the 1992 Consensus. Rather, the outcome of the Xi-Ma meeting gives Taiwan the continued ability to interpret its sovereign status as the Taiwanese population deems appropriate; similarly, China, too, can maintain its own notions of ‘one China.’

The Xi-Ma meeting is one of many steps in the long, winding history of cross-strait relations, hardly a moment of ‘much ado about nothing.’ It is a step that reminds onlookers to think of the status quo in Beijing-Taipei ties as fluid rather than as a moment stuck in the history of relations across the Strait. Xi and Ma have collectively set a foundation for the cross-strait relationship; it is now up to the next administration to ensure that the symbolic handshake in Singapore becomes a foundation for reality, nurturing the mutually beneficial trajectory of ties in a way deemed suitable to constituents on both sides.

Lauren Dickey is a PhD researcher in War Studies at King’s College London and the National University of Singapore, where she focuses on relations between mainland China and Taiwan. She is a senior editor at Strife and also a member of the Pacific Forum Young Leaders program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, DC.

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