Historic Meeting among Two Chinese Leaders

There is a very delicate relationship between the two Chinas, which still proclaim that there is only one China. Taiwan says (somewhat quietly) that it is the Republic of China, and China says triumphantly that it is the People’s Republic of China. My word choice, of course, is heavily tilted toward Beijing (henceforth also just ‘China’), and that has to do with the greater political and economic power of the People’s Republic, while Taiwan has kept itself afloat with US promises of protection and the deployment of air craft carriers to guard the Taiwan strait. The China-Taiwan conflict in diplomatic terms has been frozen in time. In other words, when Chiang Kai-shek took his army and fled to Taiwan, and the Communists under Mao Zedong seized power in the mainland, there has been no change in that peculiar political configuration.

It is all the more surprising, therefore, that the two Chinese leaders, Ma Ying-jeou from Taiwan and Xi Jinping from China have decided to meet up in Singapore, a neutral host country, to informally discuss their political positions and differences. There must be some political calculations involved on both sides. Xi tries to gain more amicable relations with neighboring countries, and hopes that the talks could be the beginning of a unification policy. 一国两制, one country and two systems, is what the current Chinese government strongly prefers, while Taipei, as the weaker partner, will want to delay this question of reunification as long as possible. The fate of Hong Kong, which is increasingly feeling the authoritarian pressures from Beijing, reveals that there could be clear disadvantages to promoting a one country policy from the perspective of Taiwan.

Opposition leader, Tsai Ing-wen, in the mean time, is criticizing her president, Ma, for meeting with the Chinese leader, because it “does not increase the safety of the people in Taiwan. There is evidently a fear that Ma will make concessions about the political status of Taiwan, even though there is no formal statement that the two leaders will issue, so there will be no face-losing. What is also quite unusual for Chinese traditions is that when the two leaders met for lunch, they were splitting the bill evenly, which is not unusual in the west, but quite so in China. It is also ironic that Ma has waited until the very last minute of his term, which expires in January 2016, to initiate direct talks with the Chinese leadership.

What is Ma trying to accomplish at the very last minute? Does he want to force his own opposition that is poised to win the presidential elections next year to make serious concessions about their pro-independence stance? When Chen Shui-bian from the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) was in power (2000-8), there were no strong official exchanges across the straits, reflecting China’s suspicion against Taiwan’s pro-independence leadership. It is all the more ironic that Beijing only feels comfortable to work together with their former enemies, the Nationalist party. Whenever the Nationalists were in power, there were signals toward rapproachment between the two Chinas. It could possibly be that the Nationalist stance of one China allows sufficient ambiguity to suppress China’s ire against Taiwan.

Whoever will become the next leader in the presidential elections in Taiwan will have to confront the fact that an ever more powerful and wealthy China will want to press the reunification issue even harder, and not weaker. I find it very unlikely that a DPP president will make any pro-independence statements. I also don’t find it likely that the current or future US president wants to press for a war against China just so they can make a point about protecting Taiwan’s freedom. The real policy outcomes will tend to be muddy and unclear, which can benefit either Taiwan or China more, depending on their negotiating skills.

Over the long term, I don’t see many alternatives to the one country, two system model, as it is envisioned by China. There will be some discontent among the Taiwanese people that have worked so hard to entrench their democratic system over the last 25 years.  Will all of that be for naught once the Beijing rulers claim full sovereignty over the island? The US will likely add a veto to any such resolution, but as day passes by, the US imperial power is not what it once was, and it can not afford to antagonize China too much.

Another possible outcome is that China and Taiwan maintain the status quo into the indefinite future, where Taiwan simply refuses to respond to China’s overtures toward reunification. It is unlikely that China will implement a stiff sanction regime against Taiwan, because we are talking still about a very rich island, whose investment resources are still sorely needed to develop China. So brutally antagonizing the Taipei leadership will also not help in bringing the outcast sheep back to the herd, and may make armed conflict more rather than less likely, and China is more than reluctant to play the bad cop when it needs peace to prosper.

Whatever outcome either side is contemplating on, what needs to certainly happen is that the personal contacts increase (which is evidenced with cross-strait family and relationship ties, and business connections), and also the high-level contacts. The presidents of each country should regularize meetings perhaps once a year to ensure that any differences in policy approaches can be figured out beforehand so as to avoid an intensification of conflict. For that reason, I strongly welcome this great historic meeting between the two Chinese leaders.

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