Despite a Historic Summit, Cross-Strait Relations Faces the ‘Certainty of Uncertainty’

By: Jeroen Gelsing

Ma Xi Grin2
Ma’s grin belies a fraught reality. Source: AFP/Roslan Rahman

On November 7, the world’s press thronged into the Island Ballroom of Singapore’s Shangri-La Hotel. The occasion marked a historic meeting between the leaders of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and the Kuomintang (KMT) – erstwhile foes in the Chinese Civil War, which reached its present stalemate with the KMT retreat to the island fortress of Taiwan.

Today, sixty-six years on, a mutual cordiality prevails that, until the inauguration of Taiwanese president Ma Ying-jeou in 2008, had been unthinkable. Nonetheless, such cross-strait congeniality may prove evanescent. Rising from Ma’s China engagement policy, he has become increasingly unpopular at home. Indeed, in defiance of Ma’s broad, toothy grin throughout his lengthy 80-second handshake with Chinese president Xi Jinping, the future of cross-strait relations is fraught with uncertainty.

As is often written, Beijing regards Taiwan as a renegade province; a breakaway territory listed for recovery as China fulfills the manifest destiny of rounding out its Qing Dynasty borders. The biggest threat to the CCP’s undertaking, Beijing warns, are the ‘splittist’ forces across the Taiwan Strait – a pejorative phrase rather effective at delegitimising Taiwanese aspirations to arbitrate their island’s own future, be it as a part of China, an independent country, or in some form of compromise solution.

Playing Beijing’s cherished ethnicity card, Xi proclaimed in his summit speech that ‘blood is thicker than water’, referring to the common Han Chinese bond of people on either side of the Taiwan Strait. This asserts the naturalness of subsuming Taiwan into a pan-Chinese nation, a view strongly supported by his domestic audience. Indeed, a fiercely nationalistic education system emphasises historic grievances, yielding a younger Chinese population that overwhelmingly supports their government’s position on China’s various territorial disputes.

Things are a little different across the Taiwan Strait. Unlike Xi, Ma travelled to Singapore as the beleaguered leader of 23 million Taiwanese – unpopular, ironically, partially because of his accommodating cross-strait policy that helped to engineer the historic summit in the first place. Under this approach, Ma has negotiated economic integration with China that has nonetheless not revivified Taiwan’s economy, as Ma originally claimed it would. Far from experiencing an economic boom, fragile growth and a loss of regional competitiveness are putting downwards pressure on the island’s economic prospects.[1]

In tandem, Taiwanese fret over the geopolitical consequences of the Ma administration’s cross-strait economic integration strategy. Increasingly, this approach is felt to be jeopardising the island’s de facto sovereignty – some 85-90% of Taiwanese indicate determination to preserve this status quo. As such, the confluence of economic disillusionment and sovereignty concerns after seven years of cross-strait rapprochement have left Ma impressively unpopular, even if under his guiding hand an unparalleled tranquillity has descended over the Taiwan Strait.

The November 7 Ma-Xi meeting came with little warning, announced only on November 3. Whatever the precise motivations behind this short notice, it conveniently denied Taiwan’s domestic opposition, both political-institutional and, as will be discussed below, within civil society, the opportunity to raise concerns regarding the meeting’s timing, which comes just several months ahead of Taiwan’s January 2016 national elections.

That such considerations may have prevailed in the KMT camp underlines the extent of public discontent with Ma’s vision for Taiwan’s future as it has unfolded over the past seven years. Yet, a broad cross-strait cooperation and integration strategy initially enjoyed at least tacit approval of the electoral majority. In 2008, Ma was first elected on a platform aimed at reviving Taiwan’s flagging economy, oriented particularly at developing closer economic relations with China. First and foremost, the Ma campaign claimed the elimination of cross-strait trade barriers would directly aid GDP growth. Secondly, it anticipated that a Taiwanese demonstration of goodwill would gain Beijing’s reciprocation and lift  crippling restrictions against the island’s international space that serve to hamstring Taiwan’s export-oriented economy.

However, fast-forward seven years, and only part of this platform has been realised. The 2010 Taiwan-China Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement (ECFA) cut tariffs and commercial barriers on cross-strait trade, which climbed to nearly 200 billion USD in 2014. Yet this trade volume increase did not herald the expected prosperity for Taiwan. To the contrary, while benefitting the operations of large corporations, ECFA has squeezed medium and small businesses, and given rise to the widespread perception that ECFA has made life harder for farmers, fishermen, blue-collar workers, and even white-collar workers, rather than easier. Indeed, over 85% of Taiwanese voice pessimism over their country’s economic trajectory.

Further, Taiwan’s anticipated greater international space has not materialised. Beijing still blocks Taiwan’s ascension to regional political forums, such as ASEAN, and prevents its participation in trade blocs rising up throughout Asia, such as the TPP (Trans-Pacific Partnership), which Taiwan is eager to join, and similarly, the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP). Equally, Beijing’s political clout makes impossible the conclusion of bilateral FTA’s – token ones with Singapore and New Zealand excepted, which comprise but a small portion of Taiwan’s foreign trade. Because of this diplo-economic isolation, the island is losing valuable competitive ground to direct competitor South Korea, which has forged trade agreements with the European Union and ASEAN, among others. Thus, Taiwan’s gamble to brave closer integration with China has not reduced sovereignty risk, but rather furthered it, while also not resulting in commensurate economic compensation to warrant this danger. For this, too, the Ma administration is held accountable.

Such grievances are exacerbated by disillusionment over the Ma administration’s lack of transparency in conducting cross-strait negotiations. Indeed, the unsupervised backdoor character of KMT-CCP talks has further fuelled fears that Ma is not adequately protecting Taiwan’s de facto sovereignty. Such concerns, rightful or not, reached a boiling point in March 2014, when the student-led Sunflower Movement prevented the ratification of ECFA’s follow-up service trade agreement. Taken in sum, the aforementioned factors have halted further cross-strait integration along the Ma administration’s blueprint.

Mistrust of Ma’s charted course for the island’s future is mirrored in Taiwanese identity trends. Presently, KMT-CCP cooperation is premised on the so-called ‘One China Principle’, which, despite critical interpretative differences, holds that both Taiwan and the mainland are part of a single ‘China’.[2] However, given the expanding contingent of islanders who consider their nationality to be Taiwanese – to say nothing about ethnicity – this is fast becoming a precariously narrow basis for conduct of political negotiations with China. Instead, a clear majority of the Taiwanese population prefers – if the circumstances permit – a cross-strait framework that explicitly recognises Taiwanese sovereignty, or at least acknowledges the existence of a self-governing entity on either side of the Taiwan Strait. Thus, Ma’s direction of and foundation for cross-strait cooperation are increasingly at odds with Taiwan’s identity trends.

Underpinning this sense of distinctness from China is over a century of geographical separation and independent development. Time and distance have made Taiwan and China very different places. Having experienced its ‘economic miracle’ in the second half of the twentieth century, Taiwan is a developed nation with living standards rivalling those of Japan and South Korea. While China, as a developing country, struggles with the extension of social security under its troubled hukou-system, Taiwan’s national healthcare, for instance, is high-performing and often lauded.  And critically, Taiwan’s democratic political system contrasts sharply with China’s authoritarianism – a distinction that resonates strongly in Taiwan. Altogether, Taiwanese are keenly aware that the products of their own politico-economic history are, in fact, accomplishments to protect, and that closeness with China is likely to jeopardise rather than preserve these achievements. Thus, to invert Xi’s November 7 comment: for many Taiwanese water trumps blood – a sentiment not easily overruled by Chinese statements of ethnic unity.

These deep-societal identity trends, backed by a profound sense of alternate development and independent accomplishments, are merging with the aforementioned diplo-economic frustrations in the run-up to the presidential and legislative elections scheduled for January 2016. KMT candidate Eric Chu trails opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) candidate Tsai Ying-wen by as many as 20 percentage points. Tsai is widely considered a shoo-in for the presidential office. In fact, KMT weakness is such that the opposition may also gain a legislative majority – unprecedented in Taiwanese history.

This would certainly make China nervous, as it would grant the DPP the power to make constitutional changes to the status quo. It is, however, not expected to do so. Nonetheless, the likelihood of cross-strait instability remains even in the absence of a legislative majority, if only for the fact that the DPP’s explicit objective to, at a minimum, preserve Taiwan’s de facto independence clashes with China’s long-term vision of the island’s recovery (or annexation, depending on your viewpoint). Indeed, the DPP rejects the One China Principle as a valid basis for cross-strait relations.

The KMT has frequently criticised Tsai for failing to develop an alternate framework for cross-strait conduct, sounding her out on offering few specifics beyond a basic commitment to preserve the status quo. Regardless, Taiwanese now appear sufficiently disenchanted with the Ma administration that they are prepared, unlike in 2012 presidential elections where Tsai ran unsuccessfully, to embrace the ‘certainty of uncertainty’. Indeed, in recognition of this possibility, China has already warned of a ‘tidal wave’ if the One China Principle is not upheld. Whatever the case, Tsai’s election will necessitate both sides to establish a new cross-strait modus operandi, and the present cordiality in Taiwan-China could thereby well be ruptured.

For Ma personally, the November 7 Shangri-La summit crowned seven years of careful cross-strait politicking, securing a tête-à-tête that had been unthinkable in 2008. However, unlike Xi, Ma attended the Shangri-La meeting as a head of state strongly criticised at home. The broad grin that paired his historic handshake with Xi, then, felt somewhat pyrrhic – the road to this smile coming at the expense of a divorce from the Taiwanese body politic. Through the Singapore summit, the CCP has tried to lock the DPP into the One-China framework, and convince the world that its approach to cross-strait relations is paying dividends. However, the summit may prove a transient high-water mark, with both the CCP and KMT recognising that under a DPP president more attuned to Taiwanese societal trends, waves – tidal or not – are to be expected.

Jeroen Gelsing is a doctoral student in War Studies at King’s College London. His research interests converge on the Asia Pacific and include the region’s international security dynamics, geopolitics, and modern history. His work has appeared in Asian Affairs, International Affairs Forum, and the Daily Telegraph, among others.


[1] While the domestic structural problems of stagnating wages, labour market rigidity, and rising real estate prices command much discontent of their own, these problems are exacerbated by the feedback loop that exists between cross-strait policy and Taiwan’s overall economic position.

[2] Specifically, the KMT utilises the tenuous construct of the 1992 Consensus as its foundation for cross-strait negotiations with China. Under the 1992 Consensus both KMT and CCP agree that there exists only one China, while both sides disagree on the party – KMT or CCP – that is the sole legitimate representative of this one China. Taiwan’s main opposition party rejects this 1992 Consensus. Note also that China’s 2005 ‘Anti-Secession Law’ directed at Taiwan does not permit any political party on Taiwan to declare de jure independence, else it provoke ‘non-peaceful means’ of intervention by Beijing.





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