On Nov. 7, Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平) summoned President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) to a meeting in Singapore. The international media hailed the meeting as historic, as it brought together the leaders of the Republic of China (ROC) and the People’s Republic of China (PRC) for the first time in 66 years, or since the end of the Chinese Civil War in 1949, when the Communist army defeated the troops of Chiang Kai-shek (蔣介石) and drove the then-Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) regime to exile in Taiwan.
It is no secret that for years “Mr Ma” has anxiously sought a meeting with Xi. Since 2012, Ma angled to attend the APEC summit in November last year to facilitate a leadership dialogue with Xi, hoping to extricate himself from deep political woes at home and salvage his presidency. As the two sides were far apart on key political and security issues, and Ma was unable to deliver a cross-strait peace agreement — which has been demanded by Beijing to terminate Taiwan’s special security relationship with the US and negate the Taiwan Relations Act — Xi had to turn down Ma’s proposition.
On several occasions in the past decades, former Chinese president Jiang Zemin (江澤民) and other Chinese leaders had rejected Taipei’s offer of a “government-to-government” dialogue on the basis of equality, instead they called for a meeting between the leaders of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and the KMT.
Apparently, some CCP officials harbored misgivings regarding the potential APEC meeting in Beijing — they were apprehensive that the international community could wrongly interpret such a meeting as Beijing’s tacit recognition of “two Chinas” — the ROC and the PRC.
However, less than one year later, why did Xi change tack and decide to meet Ma in Singapore? With the benefit of hindsight, Taiwan’s political contingencies and China’s internal leadership cleavages appear to have prompted Xi’s power play to reset Beijing’s Taiwan policy.
The KMT’s crushing defeat in last year’s nine-in-one elections was widely seen as voters’ repudiation of Ma’s pro-China programs, which targeted promoting cross-strait economic integration and close political alignment. Public opinion polls indicate that the anti-Ma and anti-KMT domino effect could extend to the presidential and legislative elections next month, which would drive the KMT out of national government and bring the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) back to power and control of both the presidency and the Legislative Yuan. Beijing has much at stake in changes to the nation’s power structure and cross-strait relations, hence Xi felt compelled to reset Beijing’s strategy to cope with contingencies in Taiwan.
Much to his chagrin, Xi belatedly discovered China’s dismal failure to win over the hearts and minds of Taiwanese. Beijing’s strategy to “buy” Taiwan helps enrich only a handful of Taiwanese business tycoons, while alienating the masses, who have suffered from the flight of capital and the relocation of production facilitates to China, resulting in high unemployment and stagnant wages, particularly among young Taiwanese.
Reportedly, Xi angrily upbraided China’s Taiwan Affairs Office (TAO) Minister Zhang Zhijun (張志軍) and the cadres of other agencies that deal with Taiwan over failures to gather intelligence and report about the “real” Taiwan, and to communicate with Taiwanese from all walks of life. If sources in China can be trusted, former Taiwan Affairs Office minister Chen Yunlin (陳雲林), who is also a former head of the Association for Relations Across the Taiwan Straits, and some of his associates have been disgraced and are under investigation for corruption and other wrongdoing amid Xi’s anticorruption campaign. An appointee and long-time follower of Jiang, Chen allowed himself to be wined, dined and enriched by supplicants among KMT politicos and Taiwanese business elites; hence he and his associates were convenient scapegoats for the setback of Beijing’s Taiwan policy. Their purges enable Xi to map out a new approach toward Taiwan and place policy operation under the control of the General Office of the CCP general secretary.
With next month’s elections and the end of Ma’s tenure approaching fast, Xi had to act quickly. He saw the Singapore meeting as a chance to shake up the outcome of the elections. As Beijing skillfully intervened in previous elections and helped Ma get re-elected in 2012, with the collaboration of the administration of US President Barack Obama, Xi sought an encore. Thus, during a state visit to Washington in September, Xi tried, but was unable, to persuade Obama to undertake another joint effort to intervene in the democratic process to keep the KMT in power.
Without Washington’s support, Xi decided to go it alone. His game plan was to set up the meeting with Ma in Singapore and, with Ma’s cooperation, create an irreversible and irrevocable framework to lock Taiwan into the “one China” cage that could not be undone even if DPP presidential candidate Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) takes office.
Not surprisingly, Xi called for ethnic solidarity and national unity.
He claimed that the people of Taiwan and China are in fact one big family and praised the Ma administration for strengthening the bonds between the two sides since 2008.
He said that ending the political division between the two sides is critical for the task of rejuvenating the Chinese nation and restoring it to its proper place in the world.
Regarding cross-strait ties, Xi admonished the future government to “unwaveringly adhere to the common political foundation between the two sides of the Strait,” based on the [so-called] “1992 consensus,” ie, the “one China” principle, and opposition to “Taiwanese independence,” lest “the ship of peaceful development ... meet with great waves and even suffer total loss.”
He warned that at present, the greatest threat to the peaceful development of cross-strait relations is the “Taiwanese independence force” [namely the DPP].
He sternly criticized “Taiwanese independence advocates,” who instigate hostility and confrontation between the two sides of the Strait, harm state sovereignty and territorial integrity, and undermine peace and stability.
On Ma’s part, he complied with the wishes of his counterpart by emphasizing his support for the consolidation of the “1992 consensus” and the “one China” principle as defined by Beijing.
Many in Taiwan’s attentive public have accused Ma of being traitorous and having undermined the nation’s sovereignty. Ma was widely criticized in the media for his eagerness to have a photo opportunity of a handshake with Xi, but failing to mention the Republic of China, thus wasting a rare chance to reinforce to the world the concept of separate governments across the Taiwan Strait. To some, that was a major step backward to safeguarding Taiwan’s survival.
Tsai took Ma to task for not mentioning the ROC and failing to speak of “democracy, freedom and the right of the 23 million Taiwanese to choose freely.”
It would be premature to conclude that Xi has succeeded in obtaining Ma’s help to confine the nation’s future to the “one China” cage and deprive Taiwanese of their right to determine their destiny. This is because Taiwan is a democracy, and its people can and will decide the nation’s fate and the future of cross-strait relations in the elections.
In a poll published by the Liberty Times [the Taipei Times’ sister paper] on Thursday last week, more than 59 percent of respondents said they do not consider the Ma-Xi summit “helpful” to KMT candidates in the presidential and legislative races, while only 19.27 percent of respondents said otherwise. The poll also showed that Tsai commands 47.86 percent of public support, while support for KMT presidential candidate Eric Chu (朱立倫) and People First Party presidential candidate James Soong (宋楚瑜) was only 13.87 percent and 6.89 percent respectively. There are clear indications that Tsai, who has campaigned on safeguarding democracy and security, will receive the people’s mandate to become the next president.
A free, democratic and secure Taiwan in the heart of Asia is crucial to US security interests in the region. Hence, it is imperative for Washington to safeguard the ability of Taiwanese to determine their own future in the face of increasing Chinese military threats. Reports from Washington that the US will announce in the middle of this month a US$1 billion arms package to Taiwan, its first new sale in more than four years, represents an encouraging signal of renewed US commitment to Taiwan’s security.
Parris H. Chang, professor emeritus of political science and former director of the Center of East Asian Studies at Pennsylvania State University, is president of the Taiwan Institute for Political, Economic and Strategic Studies.
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