Ma Meets Xi: Historic Step Forward or a Short Term Fix?

Ma Meets Xi: Historic Step Forward or a Short Term Fix?
Photo Credit: Reuters/達志影像

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By Marie-Alice McLean-Dreyfus and Tsai Jung-feng

The meeting between the leaders of China and Taiwan received wide international coverage, and hopes of a breakthrough in cross-strait relations. But appearances can deceive.

On November 7, the leader of Taiwan, Ma Ying-jeou, and of China, Xi Jinping, met in Singapore in the first meeting between leaders of the two sides since the end of the Chinese civil war in 1949. Taiwan, often overlooked in the Australian media landscape, suddenly found itself the focus of international attention. Coverage of the meeting mainly focused on its “historical significance” and its potential impact on cross-strait relations. Given Australia’s location in the Asia-Pacific and its significant trade ties with China, it is important for the Australian audience to fully understand the discourse and associated misconceptions surrounding the meeting.

The first common misconception has been the depiction of the meeting as an historical first, where leaders from both sides of the Taiwan Straits meet to discuss peace under equal conditions.

This is only partially true. The meeting was a first and also significant, but it was not equal. In six months’ time President Ma Ying-jeou will no longer be Taiwan’s leader.

One reason President Xi Jingping agreed to a meeting at this time is to indicate to the Taiwanese people that he is still striving to achieve “reunification.” But given Ma’s limited time in office, it would be apparent to Xi that a Ma caretaker government would be unable to achieve this.

A driving factor behind Xi’s agreement to the meeting is to use Ma as a bridge to lock in future development of cross-strait relations under the “one China” policy. This would then limit any possible deviation to the US-Japan Alliance under the likely next president. Tsai Ing-wen, the leader of the opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), is likely to win the election next January. If she wins the election and then refuses to hold another meeting, China would depict her as responsible for “changing the status quo.”

If, on the other hand, Tsai did agree to another meeting, China would then have the leeway to use this meeting to force Tsai further towards a “one China” policy. As part of this arrangement Taiwan would become part of China’s domestic affairs, managed through China’s Taiwan Affairs Office (國台辦).

The press conference following the meeting provided clues of Beijing’s strategy. In front of the world’s media, Taiwan’s President Ma stood alongside the head of the China’s Taiwan Affairs Office, Zhang Zhijun; this implied that the leader of Taiwan is only equal to the chairman of the Mainland Affairs Office (and not the head of state).

The second misconception was that the meeting was widely supported within Taiwan and the wider international community.

The US and Taiwan have a longstanding and strong, but unofficial, relationship underpinned by the Taiwan Relations Act. Due to this relationship and the recent tensions in the China-US relationship (most recently over China’s territorial ambitions in the South China Sea), a number of articles in Chinese state affiliated media reported that the meeting had full US support.

In the lead-up to the meeting during the White House daily press briefing on November 3, Director of the Press Office Elizabeth Trudeau stated that the US welcomes steps by both sides to “reduce tensions and improve cross-strait relations.” The US encourages authorities in “Beijing and Taipei to continue their constructive dialogue on the basis of dignity and respect.”

Following the meeting on November 7, John Kirby, US State Department spokesperson, repeated almost the exact same words as Trudeau, merely adding that the US remained committed to “our One China Policy, based on the Three Joint Communiqués and the Taiwan Relations Act.” The discourse included in both statements reiterates the official US position on cross-strait relations whereby the US “insists on the peaceful resolution of cross-strait differences [and] opposes unilateral changes to the status quo by either side.” As the statements show, the US has maintained a consistent approach to cross-strait relations and has not shown strong support either way.

The last misconception repeated in coverage of the meeting is that that the Ma-Xi meeting was widely supported in Taiwan.

In the initial press conference to announce the meeting, Mainland Affairs Commission (MAC) Chairperson Andrew Hsia referred to polling numbers suggesting more than 80% of the Taiwanese people support a meeting between the two leaders. With no information about the source of the survey, it was difficult to ascertain the veracity of this claim.

Other survey data of the Taiwanese people’s attitudes towards meetings between the leaders indicates there is support among Taiwanese voters for talks with the Mainland. This is true of both DPP supporters (66.3%) and KMT supporters (82.9%). While Taiwanese people may support talks with the Mainland, with President Ma’s historic low popularity (currently at 9%) and the near-certain electoral loss of the KMT in the upcoming elections, there is little faith among the public in the capacity of Ma to lead talks with China. A group of Taiwanese activists related to the 2014 Sunflower Movement (a protest movement within Taiwan) expressed their concerns to the media, indicating a lack of trust in Ma. Groups of Taiwanese overseas students and the eruption of a small protest on the streets of Taipei during the meeting also indicated public concern.

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The meeting between Ma and Xi was significant, in as much as all meetings between heads of states are meaningful. Yet with Ma Ying-jeou lacking electoral legitimacy and trust, the meeting was not the historical landmark that some reports made it out to be. While cross-strait relations will only play one part in the upcoming Taiwanese presidential elections, it is likely to be the main element covered in Australia. Gaining a balanced and nuanced grasp of this complex topic is the key to better understanding Taiwan and China and the relationship between them.

Marie-Alice McLean-Dreyfus is a 2015 recipient of the Euan Crone Asian Awareness Scholarship. She has been accepted to research at Thinking Taiwan, a think-tank and news website.

Tsai Jung-feng is a graduate from the Coral Bell School at ANU with a Masters of Diplomacy and Strategic Studies.

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First Editor: Olivia Yang
Second Editor: Yuan

This article was originally published on the Australian Institute of International Affairs here. This article can be republished with attribution under a Creative Commons License.


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