Regardless of proclaimed objectives, President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) set out to meet Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平). China’s only purpose was to consolidate the “one China status quo” according to which China and Taiwan belong to “one and the same state.”
This has become particularly important to Xi after the US Navy’s USS Lassen sailed through one of China’s artificial islands in the Spratly Islands (Nansha Islands, 南沙群島) to challenge Beijing’s sovereignty claim over the entire South China Sea, and to defend Washington’s rights of free navigation in high seas.
The Ma-Xi meeting created a false impression to the world that the Chinese and Taiwanese leaders were jointly safeguarding “Chinese sovereignty” based on the similar historical U-shaped lines in the South China Sea.
Although the Ma administration might respond by saying that the two sides are separately safeguarding their own sovereignty, such a response would hardly distinguish the Taiwanese claim from the Chinese one.
The timing also explained why Xi, who was reluctant to meet the unpopular Ma before, took the initiative and played the Taiwan card at a time of Sino-US confrontation.
The problem is that if Xi really was playing the Taiwan card, then their meeting would appear to the world that strategically and geopolitically, the Taiwanese government is choosing China, rather than the US. This strategic choice should not be made hastily without consulting the public through the democratic process, as it involves the nation’s survival and future development.
It should be noted that Xi once said that the problem regarding the unification of the two sides of the Taiwan Strait “cannot be passed on from generation to generation.”
If Ma did not mention his “no unification policy” during the meeting, others might be suspicious of Ma recognizing the goal of “eventual unification.”
Moreover, since the false impression that the two sides belong to “one and the same China state” set by Xi has already taken shape, and endorsed by Ma’s interpretation of the Republic of China (ROC) Constitution, there was no need for the two to sign an agreement or issue any joint statement after their meeting. The timing of the meeting and the two national leaders’ status at the event said it all.
Although their titles seemed equal on the surface, they would like to be called and seen as leaders from two areas of “one China.” However, given that the meeting took place in connection to Xi’s state visit to Singapore, it shows that in the international community, Xi is the one who represents “one China.”
Of course, Ma might well argue and explain to the US that the purpose of his trip was to consolidate cross-strait peace and maintain the “status quo,” and that Taiwan would not cooperate with China in the South China Sea against the US.
He could even argue that their meeting would help constrain the possible cross-strait options if Democratic Progressive Party presidential candidate Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) is elected in January.
However, in the eyes of the Chinese Communist Party and the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT), as long as Ma and Xi reached a common understanding on what constitutes the “status quo,” Tsai, who has proposed that the “status quo” be maintained, would then be forced to maintain their “status quo.”
Therefore, the effect of the Ma-Xi meeting on the January presidential and legislative elections will be that Tsai will be forced to clarify whether and how she will maintain the “status quo” that Ma and Xi have laid down.
Such a move would not necessarily hurt the US’ interests. If the sensitive issue of Taiwan’s status was not mentioned during the meeting, the US might be pleased to see some good results such as Tsai inheriting a channel for cross-strait dialogue and executing the cross-strait agreements.
However, as a democracy, the US might be wondering why Ma, who is stepping down next year, does not allow the public to decide Taiwan’s future through the Jan. 16 election.
David Huang is an associate research fellow at Academia Sinica.
Translated by Eddy Chang
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