Cross Strait, Talking Point

Strait talking in Singapore

Historic meeting a litmus test for cross-Strait relations

Chinese President Xi Jinping shakes hands with Taiwan's President Ma Ying-jeou during a summit in Singapore

Hands across the water: Ma (pictured left) and Xi pose for the world’s press in Singapore last weekend

In August 1945 Mao Zedong boarded a plane for the first time in his life. The Chinese Communist Party (CPC) leader was flying to China’s wartime capital in Chongqing to meet Chiang Kai-shek, the head of the nationalist Kuomintang (KMT).

Mao’s visit made the front page of the New York Times. The summit had been brokered by Washington, which hoped to avoid a civil war by engineering a coalition government that unified China after its hard-won victory over Japan.

The talks were notable for the displays of goodwill. At one function Chiang raised a toast to Mao who, on several occasions, exclaimed publicly: “Long live Chairman Chiang.”

Behind the scenes the warm relations were less apparent. According to the CPC’s account, Chiang claimed to be willing to share power but the best he would offer Mao was to make him the provincial head of Xinjiang. You can guess that Mao wasn’t terribly excited by the proposal. Nevertheless he sat through 43 days of negotiations and on October 10 the CPC and KMT signed a joint communiqué littered with references to peace, democracy and national unity.

A day later: a historic handshake between Chiang and Mao, as the Generalissimo bid farewell to his nemesis at the airport. This was the first time – and the only time – the pair shook hands.

A settlement proved elusive. Following their half-hearted truce a full-blown civil war soon broke out. By 1949 Chiang and his broken KMT forces had fled to Taiwan, beginning the decades of division across the Taiwan Strait. Officials from both sides have often met – but never at a level of seniority that matched Mao and Chiang’s Chongqing summit.

But history took another twist last Saturday as the top leaders from the mainland and Taiwan met face-to-face for the first time in 66 years. Relations between the CPC and KMT have once again made headlines in the international media. And there was even an 80-second handshake between the current CPC boss Xi Jinping and the Taiwanese leader Ma Ying-jeou.

The unexpected summit was a little short on substance, but it has still prompted questions about whether it might serve as a watershed moment in cross-Strait relations.

Just a symbolic get-together?

The China Daily thought that the occasion was significant enough to run an eight-page special edition the day after the meeting. The huge-font headline “Historic Handshake” was plastered beneath a giant photo of Xi and Ma on the front page.

“The hands of top leaders across the Taiwan Straits travelled more than six decades to reach a minute-long grip on Saturday, setting the stage for deeper integration based on the one-China principle,” the newspaper proclaimed.

The encounter was studded with political symbolism. Xi was wearing a Communist red tie, while Ma sported a KMT blue one. All smiles, the pair waved to hundreds of reporters as cameras flashed around them.

The meeting took place in Singapore, which has form in this respect: it provided the neutral territory for a groundbreaking moment in 1993 when two semi-government bodies from both sides of the Strait met.

But this Singapore summit was of a different order of magnitude. Xi and Ma carry the bluest (or ‘reddest’) blood of the political clans that they represent. The 62 year-old Xi is the son of Xi Zhongxun, formerly a vice premier of China and a long-term comrade of Mao. Three years older than Xi, Ma began his political career as a translator for Chiang Ching-kuo, son of the Generalissimo and later a Taiwanese president.

Netizens picked up on the historical theme. “The Xi-Ma meeting is the sequel of the Chongqing summit 70 years ago between Mao and Chiang” was a widely forwarded comment on the social media. “This is the reunion of the son of Chairman Mao’s assistant, and the assistant of Chairman Chiang’s son.”

What exactly happened?

After the handshake photo call there was an hour-long meeting, carefully convened to maintain the ambiguous status quo between the CPC and KMT. Hence the leaders addressed each other as “Mister” rather than “President”, although Xi Jinping opted to play on a more familial theme in parts of his address. “No matter how long we stand apart and how many difficulties we go through, we are still family and blood is always thicker than water… We are brothers connected by flesh even if our bones are broken,” he proclaimed, in opening remarks which largely appealed to the emotions.

The speech given by Ma Ying-jeou was rather more businesslike, with a five-point proposal to improve ties, including a cross-Strait hotline to deal with emergencies.

Xi didn’t meet reporters again in Singapore but Ma held a post-meeting press conference. He described Xi as someone “who could make decisions quickly on certain subjects”. The Taiwan leader also revealed that he told Xi that many Taiwanese are concerned that hundreds of missiles are still targeting the island from the mainland.

The real ice-breaker was a dinner at Singapore’s Shangri-La Hotel (a very Chinese way to deal with tough negotiations). Mind you, there was protocol to be observed here too: the two sides went Dutch on the bill to avoid giving the impression that either side was hosting the other.

Over suckling pig and spicy noodles, Xi and Ma talked everything from wine to their respective daughters (both studied at Harvard) as well as Chinese zodiac signs, according to various media outlets.

Even the cheery topic of knives made from old artillery shells seems to have cropped up (Ma brought highly-prized sorghum wine from Kinmen to the dinner, leading Xi to note that another of Kinmen’s specialities is knives made out of People’s Liberation Army shells lobbed over the Strait from Fujian province).

“The atmosphere was really good,” Ma told reporters on his way out of the banquet. “We did not drink that much… He [Xi Jinping] said his capacity for liquor wasn’t good and I said mine was not good either.”

The mainland’s media took a slightly different spin on Ma’s sobriety, suggesting that he “looked flushed” when he left.

Different takes from the summit?

Unlike the marathon meeting in Chongqing 70 years ago, Washington’s influence was hardly felt this time. News that a summit was happening came out just days before the meeting. “Although preparations spread out across two years, it wasn’t announced until Wednesday [November 4], catching almost everyone by surprise,” the Washington Post reckons.

After the initial excitement had died down, the BBC observed that the actual meeting “was seen as largely symbolic” by the Western media. TIME magazine added that the summit’s outcome was underwhelming, with no agreements signed in Singapore nor any joint statement issued. “This is a milestone but not a breakthrough,” the magazine noted. “The stress was on a policy that’s nearly a quarter-century old: the 1992 Consensus.”

(The 1992 Consensus is an important doctrine whereby the CPC and KMT agreed that there is only one China, without specifying whether it’s the People’s Republic of China on the mainland, or the Republic of China in Taiwan. Pro-independence politicians in Taiwan generally don’t recognise the 1992 Consensus.)

Of course Chinese state media has painted a very different view of last week’s proceedings. The state broadcaster even compared Xi’s meeting with Ma with Richard Nixon’s 1972 trip to China, which paved the way for Washington and Beijing to normalise relations. “The meeting will be crucial to high-level political exchanges across the Taiwan Strait and will steer future cross-Strait relations,” Xinhua news agency predicted.

The mood among mainland Chinese netizens has also been upbeat. “A unified China will immediately breach the Americans’ first island chain [a military doctrine that refers to the American navy blockading China from Japan through Taiwan to the Philippines],” one cheerful blogger wrote on Tiexue, a discussion forum for military issues.

“Hopefully the meeting will bring a very different result from the Chongqing summit,” another suggested.

Polls in Taiwan have generally found support for the meetings between the two sides too, although Tsai Ing-wen, the presidential candidate for the opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), made plain that many Taiwanese have been left disappointed.

“The event only saw President Ma’s immediately self-satisfied handshake. Taiwan’s democracy has been missing entirely,” Tsai wrote on her Facebook page.

What does Xi want?

The meeting with Ma followed weeks of globetrotting diplomatic engagements for the Chinese president, including a highly rewarding trip to Britain (see WiC300) and state visits to the US (see WiC298) and Vietnam.

On the contrary, Ma has much less meaningful exposure on the global stage, because the Taiwanese have formal diplomatic ties with just 21 countries, including the likes of Tuvalu, Burkina Faso and Saint Lucia.

In front of a global audience, Ma was offered the chance to share the stage with Xi, a leader who has only recently rubbed shoulders with Barack Obama and Queen Elizabeth (and shared a pint with David Cameron in his local pub). This may have explained why Ma seemed a more energised figure in Singapore than in his more subdued performances back at home. Taiwan’s United Daily News reported that Ma has been pushing for “a meeting with the Chinese president with equal status and respect” since he was elected as the island’s leader in 2008. “Ma Ying-jeou during his reign has opposed effortlessly the Taiwan independence movement, while fostering the economic and cultural exchanges across the Strait. He even seems to have some sort of ‘tacit understanding’ with Beijing over the territorial disputes in the East and South China Sea,” the pro-KMT newspaper said. “Beijing may need to give Ma a suitable reward.”

It could be a highly rewarding move for Beijing too. The Xi-Ma dialogue comes in the wake of fresh tension in the South China Sea involving the US Navy (see WiC301). With last week’s meeting Xi has tried to project a peacemaker image. Meanwhile further talks with Taiwan will play to Beijing’s advantage if the maritime disputes flare up further.

And what’s next for Taiwan?

A more pressing concern for Beijing, political analysts have agreed, is Taiwan’s forthcoming presidential election in January.

Ma’s policy of engagement with Beijing has contributed to the KMT’s sinking popularity on the island. (His personal approval rating has dropped to a paltry 9% in some surveys.) Student demonstrators occupying the island’s legislature last year even forced Ma’s administration to shelve a cross-Strait trade pact. And the Wall Street Journal has warned that the meeting Xi could backfire and undermine his party further in the January elections.

The latest opinion polls – out this week – aren’t showing much of a rebound in the KMT’s support. The incumbent party still looks likely be routed by Tsai Ing-wen’s DPP, which also attracts supporters of Taiwanese independence. Having said that, Beijing has put cross-Strait relations higher up the agenda for the upcoming election. “With the Xi-Ma meeting Beijing has effectively put the 1992 Consensus right in front of Tsai Ing-wen. She can’t avoid the issue but needs to make her stance clear on the ‘One China’ proposition. Then Taiwan’s public will decide,” is the verdict of China Review, a mainland media source.

If that message was not blunt enough, Beijing has hammered it home again this week. “President Xi has made it clear during the meeting that the mainland government is willing to work with all Taiwanese political parties which recognise the 1992 Consensus,” Zhang Zhijun, minister of the Taiwan Affairs Office, told reporters on Monday.

Meanwhile, a few carrots have been left dangling by the mainland side too. Having initially rejected Taiwan’s bid to join the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank as a founding member, Xi assured Ma that China would welcome Taiwan’s participation in the AIIB, as well as being part of “One Belt, One Road” initiatives, a development strategy that focuses on expanding China’s influence across Eurasia.

The People’s Daily has also suggested that another meeting between Xi and Ma is possible, despite the fact that Ma will soon step down from power. Indeed, as Xi shook Ma’s hand at the end of their dinner, he is said to have told Ma (according to Taiwan’s Apple Daily): “We shall meet again someday.”

But did the celebratory mood deteriorate in Taipei this week?

That’s what the Financial Times was reporting yesterday, claiming to have interviewed disgruntled top officials in Taiwan. John Deng, economic affairs minister, complained to the FT of “unfair” competition from China, for example. Lin Chu-chia, deputy minister of Taiwan’s Mainland affairs Council, likewise moaned that the island was being prevented by Beijing from joining new trade pacts (such as the TPP) a situation which would hurt Taiwanese exports and ultimately its economy. The comments, said the FT, “underline the huge gulf that remains between the two sides despite the apparent thaw” and were voiced, it pointed out, “just days after the outpourings of brotherly love” at the Xi-Ma summit…

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