President Ma Ying-jeou’s (馬英九) historic meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平) in Singapore on Saturday will add to Ma’s eventual legacy as the first Taiwanese leader to meet with his Chinese counterpart. However, this is not expected to overshadow the position of great weakness from which Ma proceeded in this initiative.
Ma’s presidency has been marred by his own inability to strengthen his Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT). He leaves a party almost certain to cede the Presidential Office to Democratic Progressive Party presidential candidate Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文), and quite possibly allow the pan-green camp to command a majority in the Legislative Yuan for the first time in history.
I have a lot of respect for KMT presidential candidate Eric Chu (朱立倫), who is a capable politician. However, even he is most unlikely to change this outcome, given the broad public dissatisfaction over the KMT’s rule, which is Ma’s real legacy.
Xi might win a Pyrrhic victory, but I do not sense that his popularity among Taiwanese will increase that much. This is particularly so because he was unwilling to give Ma much at all, according to press reports coming out of Singapore.
If Xi had offered a concrete proposal to reduce military deployments, particularly the forest of forward-deployed missiles across the Taiwan Strait, that would have been a real step forward. His disingenuous claim that these missiles are not aimed at Taiwan is simply laughable.
Nor did he give any ground on Taiwan’s international space, even though Ma’s very modest request was for Taiwanese non-governmental organizations’ representatives to be allowed to participate in functional organizations abroad.
Most notably, Xi did not demonstrate any sign of respect for those on Taiwan who are justifiably proud of their accomplishments as the first truly democratic governance in greater China’s long history.
I am not surprised, given the Chinese Communist Party’s contempt for democratic processes. The truth is that they are deeply afraid of this concept, and the existential threat it poses to their own authoritarian system.
Xi should by now recognize that he does not get to choose his interlocutor with the Taiwanese. That has been the prerogative of Taiwan’s electorate now for nearly 20 years.
By all polling measures, Tsai will be the next president of Taiwan. She is smart and experienced, and as an economist by training, knows the stakes in managing cross-strait ties effectively.
The US official statement welcomes the Ma-Xi meeting. Washington officials will get their chance to meet Chu soon, and might again seek to tip their hand afterward, as was done four years ago, when they questioned Tsai’s candidacy. It will not be enough this time.
More fundamentally, the US’ support for Taiwan has shown the ability to work with whoever is democratically elected, knowing that our Taiwanese friends will pay close attention to our overarching regional priorities.
As a long-time friend and student of Taiwan, I have great confidence that Taiwan and its remarkable people can and will thrive and survive in their tough neighborhood.
Their amazing economic record, coupled with their pioneering success in becoming the first Chinese entity to usher in democratic rule, ensures their continuing success. China’s rulers would do well to learn from the island and its intrepid citizenry.
Stephen Young was director of the American Institute in Taiwan from 2006 to 2009 and served as US ambassador to Kyrgyzstan and consul general in Hong Kong. He is a visiting professor at Wesleyan University.
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