In what has been billed as the first formal meeting between Taiwan’s and China’s top officials in charge of cross-strait affairs since 1949, Mainland Affairs Council Minister Wang Yu-chi (王郁琦) met Taiwan Affairs Office Minister Zhang Zhijun (張志軍) on Tuesday last week in Nanjing, China, with the two men addressing one another by their formal titles. Some people in Taipei have been going out of their way to raise a big fanfare about a possible meeting between President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) and Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平) and this prospect has drawn a lot of attention to the meeting between Wang and Zhang.
Although the legislature had the foresight to draw some red lines before Wang’s departure, Taiwan is sure to pay a price for this meeting with his Chinese counterpart.
Face-to-face talks between high-ranking government officials mark a departure from the long-established practice of using semi-governmental organizations — the Straits Exchange Foundation and China’s Association for Relations Across the Taiwan Straits (ARATS) — as proxy contacts.
The Ma administration, accustomed as it is to wishful thinking, sees this development as a success for its cross-strait policy of “mutual non-denial” and it has been boasting about how the meeting was “of great significance” and “marked the start of a new chapter in cross-strait relations.”
In China, ever since Xi took over as president, he has kept making moves designed to urge Taiwan to engage in political negotiations. In an informal meeting with former vice president Vincent Siew (蕭萬長) in October last year, Xi said: “The longstanding political division between the two sides will have to be eventually resolved step by step as it should not be passed on generation after generation.”
Last week’s meeting between Wang and Zhang was the first step in a game where the goal is to further China’s “unification” agenda by means of government-to-government negotiations.
In the face of widespread opposition to political talks among Taiwanese, Ma at first responded to Chinese pressure for political talks by saying that the two sides should talk about business and economics first and leave politics till later. After he started his second term in office last year, Ma’s incompetent performance dragged his approval rate as low as 9 percent in opinion polls. Keen to leave some kind of legacy from his time in office, he has been making a last-ditch effort to achieve something with his China policy. Ma still clings to the goal of “eventual unification” and envisions a meeting between himself and Xi, and that is the setting in which last week’s meeting between Wang and Zhang took place.
Given this context, the Wang-Zhang meeting and any ensuing official negotiations are sure to harm Taiwan’s interests. Signs of this can already be seen. The current pattern of developments reflects China’s strategy of setting up a framework, luring the other side into its trap and then breaking down resistance by offering bogus concessions in exchange for real ones. The format of the Wang-Zhang meeting created the appearance of a “breakthrough in cross-strait relations,” which made the Ma government — driven by its need for favors from China — eager to take part, and also attracted the attention of international media. China started off by making the minor concession of having its minister address the other by his official title, while actually undermining the authority of the Mainland Affairs Council. Nevertheless, Ma and his government prefer to delude themselves by celebrating China’s apparent gesture of goodwill.