President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) has always prided himself — in particular vis-a-vis the US — that he would pull “no surprises.” However, his announcement that he will meet Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平) in Singapore on Saturday is one very big surprise.
What has prompted Ma to make this move at this time?
Obviously, he has only about seven months left in office, and he wants to salvage his legacy. After so many disastrous stances and moves, his standing in the polls is way down, and he feels he wants to do something drastic to burnish his image.
However, it is doubtful a meeting with Xi would really help him very much: He is generally considered a down-and-out has-been politician, and very few people outside his own little circle believe him anymore.
Of course, he is also trying to turn the tide in the presidential elections, with Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) candidate Eric Chu (朱立倫), still way behind in the opinion polls. The party’s showing with Ma’s protege, Deputy Legislative Speaker Hung Hsiu-chu (洪秀柱), as candidate was disastrous.
Ma and his advisers thought that by switching to Chu as candidate, the picture would improve, but polls during the past two weeks show the opposite: Chu’s manipulation of Hung’s ouster did not earn him much credit, and his numbers are at about the same level as Hung’s were.
A third reason is that Ma wants to nail Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) presidential candidate Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) down on cross-strait relations. Ma has been trumpeting that cross-strait “stability” cannot be guaranteed unless Tsai agrees to embrace the so-called “1992 consensus.”
He wants to reinforce this point by meeting with Xi and thus restrict Tsai’s room for maneuver once she becomes president. However, for Tsai and the DPP, the “1992 consensus” is a slippery slope toward unification, and she wants to keep all options open for Taiwan, providing Taiwanese the opportunity to choose their future freely in an open and democratic process.
Contrary to popular perception, the present “peace and stability” is only artificial, as it is predicated on the fact that Ma has given China the impression that Taiwan is inexorably drifting in its direction. As is very clear from opinion polls, that is simply not the case: Taiwanese prefer their democracy and freedom.
What then would be a wise course to follow? Certainly not what Ma is trying to do on Saturday. He is a lame duck, who is trying to pull a self-serving trick to cement his place in history. He does not have a popular mandate for any cross-strait negotiations whatsoever.
A truly fruitful and productive meeting between the leaders from the two sides can only be held in due time, after Taiwan itself has reached a broad consensus on future cross-strait relations in a transparent and open political process. What Ma is doing now is playing poker with the future of the country.
Gerrit van der Wees is editor of Taiwan Communique, a publication based in Washington.