Chinese President Xi Jinping will meet with his Taiwanese counterpart Ma Ying-jeou on November 7. The meeting will be held on neutral ground, in Singapore, and it will be the first face-to-face encounter between leaders from across the Taiwan Strait. This fact alone has already been enough for branding the development as historic by the media around the globe. Ever since the Nationalist KMT government of the Republic of China lost the civil war to the Chinese Communist Party and was forced to seek refuge on Taiwan, there has been no official state-to-state communication between Beijing and Taipei as cross-strait relations have been managed through “NGO’s” or on a party-to-party level (KMT-CCP).
Therefore, it is fair to say that the Ma-Xi meeting (馬習會) will be a historic one, even though no historic decisions will be taken. Taiwan’s presidential spokesman Charles Chen (陳以信)
has already made it clear that no agreements will be signed and no joint statements will be made. If that is the case, why even bother?
According to Chen, the two leaders are scheduled to meet in order to exchange their opinions on cross-strait relations, consolidate peace and maintain the status quo across the Taiwan Strait. As reported by Reuters, “Ma added that he would bring up the issue of Taiwan’s difficulties in participating in international activities, particularly NGOs.” But the political context – not official explanations – is what matters most and helps understand the rationale behind the historic decision that will not have any historic implications.
On January 16 2016 presidential and legislative elections will be held in Taiwan, and the opposition, the traditionally pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party has been enjoying an impressive lead in polls on both accounts. It is no secret that the Chinese Communist Party prefers to deal with the ruling Kuomintang (KMT) and it does not like the idea of a DPP-led Taiwanese government. Despite the fact that the party’s leader and presidential frontrunner Tsai Ying-wen has been moderate, though vague, while referring to relations with Beijing.
And that is precisely the reason Xi has finally decided to meet with Ma. Beijing wants to send a clear signal across the Taiwan Strait: KMT is a reliable partner and the only major political force in Taiwan capable of managing the complexity of cross-strait relations. The Ma-Xi meeting is to be the cherry on top of the Sino-Taiwanese rapprochement that has been championed by Ma ever since he was elected for the first time in 2008.
The thing is Ma’s policy toward Beijing contributed to the downslide of his popularity among the Taiwanese, who have been growing increasingly suspicious of the government’s dealings with the mainland. And this is why this last minute publicity stunt is not likely to have the desired impact on the upcoming elections.
The very fact that the two leaders are going to meet has already caused quite a stir in Taiwan. A Facebook group dedicated to a protest march gathered close to 1,000 participants in less than a day. The New Power Party – which has a good chance of winning a couple legislative seats and entering the DPP-led coalition after next year’s elections – called for Ma’s impeachment. The same notion was proposed by a long editorial published by Thinking Taiwan, a popular think tank funded by Tsai Ying-wen. However, the DPP’s presidential hopeful has been much more moderate in her response. She only questioned the timing of the meeting and suggested that Ma might be willing to influence the elections.
All in all, the symbolic nature of this meeting is the only truly historic thing in this whole ordeal. And that is arguably the reason why – despite domestic criticism – it will be regarded as Ma’s significant political achievement: History will remember him as the first Taiwanese president to meet with his Chinese counterpart, even though both sides have agreed not to refer to each other as “Mr. President.”