Analysis: Was Ma-Xi Meeting a Historic Summit or Farewell Dinner?
By Wendell Minnick
Chinese President Xi Jinping (R) shakes hands with Taiwan President Ma Ying-jeou (L) before their meeting at Shangrila hotel in Singapore on November 7, 2015. The leaders of China and Taiwan hold a historic summit that will put a once unthinkable presidential seal on warming ties between the former Cold War rivals. AFP PHOTO / Roslan RAHMAN (Photo credit should read ROSLAN RAHMAN/AFP/Getty Images)
TAIPEI — A summit between the leaders of China and Taiwan on Nov. 7 in Singapore was the first such meeting between the two adversaries since the Chinese Civil War ended in 1949.
China’s President, Xi Jinping, and Taiwan’s President, Ma Ying-jeou, met to exchange views on cross-sStrait relations. The meeting comes two months before Taiwan's the general elections in Taiwan. In January, Taiwan will to elect a new president, vice president and legislature.
Ma, of the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT), has been served as Taiwan’s president since 2008 and ushered in historic cross-Taiwan Strait economic and cooperative agreements with China.
"Ma has not been given enough credit for keeping cross-sStrait relations calm and peaceful for the past almost eight years and for moving relations forward in a way that has not undercut Taiwan but rather has strengthened it," said Ralph Cossa, president of the Pacific Forum at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International StudiesCSIS.
However, the summit in Singapore may very well be a farewell banquet for KMT influence over Taiwan politics. Opinion polls indicate Taiwan’s populace is dissatisfied with Ma, as well as and the KMT’s handling of the government and economy. Taiwan’s demographics are rapidly changing, and the KMT appears unprepared to face a growing identity crisis as people begin to identify themselves as Taiwanese and not Chinese.
This appears to has placed the pro-Taiwan Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) in the winner-take-all position in local polling to win the presidency and take control of the legislature. The DPP’s Tsai Ing-wen and KMT’s Eric Chu are facing off in the presidential race. Currently, polls indicate that Tsai is in the lead with 39- to 45 percent of the vote. Chu has only 17 to -29 percent.
Chu was not the KMT’s first choice. In what appeared to be a decision based on panic over the polls, the party dropped presidential candidate Hung Hsiu-chu was dropped by the KMT as their presidential candidate on Oct. 17 in favor of Chu. Hung’s personality has much to do with the decision. Her nickname, "Little Hot Pepper," due to her occasional bouts of rage, did not help her in public polling.
Dean Cheng, a China specialist at the Washington-based Heritage Foundation, said that the Chinese chose such a course chose to meet with Ma now in part because they recognize the likelihood of not only a DPP victory in the Taiwan's next presidential election, next year, but also, possibly, even larger-scale changes in the political landscape there in Taiwan.
"If the DPP takes control of the legislature, the cross-Straits political situation will likely be under even greater pressure," he said. Cheng believes that Beijing may be engaging in dialogue now, in order in an effort to improve relations and forestall any major shift in cross-strait ties in the event ahead of such a sea change.
The DPP won the presidency on slim margins in 2000 and 2004 but was unable to secure a majority in the legislature. This allowed the KMT to stall DPP efforts to modify the Taiwan's Cconstitution to favor a growing independence-minded populace. The KMT generation that dominated politics during the Mmartial Llaw era under Chiang Kai-shek is growing old, and ill feelings continue over brutal, and often deadly, KMT policy during the White Terror period.
The army and political seat of power moved to the island of Taiwan in 1949 after the KMT lost the Chinese Civil War. A number of atrocities occurred against the local Taiwanese population, such as including the 2-28 Incident, and the forced imprisonment of pro-democracy advocates, including the former president of Taiwan, DPP member Chen Shui-bian, who later became was Taiwan's president (serving form 2000 until 2008).
Since winning the civil war in China, After the Chinese Communist Party won the civil war, it continues to threaten to take Taiwan by military force, but the effort has yet to succeed, despite impressive military modernization efforts that now include ballistic missiles, advanced fighter aircraft and anti-satellite weapons.
With Ma Ying-jeou leaving office in a few months, and the prospect of Taiwan’s DPP taking control of the presidency and legislature, the Xi-Ma summit might as well have been dubbed a "farewell banquet" for the KMT. Despite Ma's the lame-duck status of Ma, many analysts believe it was a successful meeting, given the constraints.
"There were no breakthroughs promised or achieved, but it put the spotlight on cross-sStrait issues and demonstrated Xi was prepared to be flexible and non-threatening within the context of ‘One China, different interpretations,’ of course," Cossa said.
The "One China" position evolved out of a 1992 meeting between semi-official representatives of China and Taiwan. China’s position is that there is one undivided sovereignty of China, and that China is the sole legitimate representative of that sovereignty. The KMT’s position is that there is one undivided sovereignty of China, and that Taiwan (Republic of China) is the sole legitimate representative of that sovereignty. There was no DPP during this time period. The DPP later adopted a position that China was a country and that there is now, therefore, there is now one country on each side of the Strait, and each being is a sovereign nation. These various positions have caused confusion in interpretation on all sides, including that of the United States.
The meeting in Singapore was certainly unusual. This was not a low-key meeting fitted into a side conversation or as an ancillary part of some larger event, Cheng said.
"Instead, the meeting was officially acknowledged by the PRC [People's Republic of China] side, complete with photographs, and it occurred in a third-party venue, in a foreign country," he said.
Compare this to China's rage when Taiwan's then-President Lee Tung-hui visited the US in 1995, which sparked the Third Taiwan Strait Crisis. The US sent two aircraft carriers to the area as a show of force against China's missile tests, which were aimed at disrupting Taiwan's first democractic election.
China now faces a potential disaster with the KMT losing power in Taiwan in the upcoming elections. The DPP has little interest in being absorbed by military force or political agreement into a "Greater China" controlled by a one-pParty dictatorship in Beijing. In addition, not inviting the DPP was not invited to participate in the Xi-Ma meeting in Singapore, indicatesing that Xi and the Communist Party clearly do not understand the untenable position the KMT has in future Taiwan politics.
How China handles a DPP win in both the presidential and legislative elections will depend on how the DPP modifies its "One China" interpretation. During the Xi-Ma summit, there was an attempt by China to lock down a joint statement on "One China," but the prospects of the DPP accepting this phrase is slim, even though it will likely have to come up with some workable, acceptable alternative if they party wants to keep economic and political cooperation at current levels, Cossa said.
"Everyone seems to see this [the Xi-Ma meeting] as a political move aimed at influencing the upcoming election in the KMT's favor," he said. "While Ma may hope this is the case, my guess is that this was not the primary motivation and he no doubt realized that could backfire."
The only apparent agreement or endorsement by both leaders was the establishment of a hotline between their organizations handling cross-strait relations. This is a small step toward confidence building, and there were no details on how a line would be set up.
"The Ma-Xi meeting has yet to provide any indication that China is ready to alter it’s primary military goal toward Taiwan: to prepare for a possible medium-term invasion of the island," said Richard Fisher, vice president of the International Assessment and Strategy Center in, Alexandria, Virginia. "Defense officials in Taipei and in Washington now speak about the threat of a Chinese invasion of Taiwan," Fisher said. "Steps toward real confidence building would include China demilitarizing the Nanjing Military Region instead of rapidly improving amphibious assault capabilities, destroying missiles aimed at Taiwan instead of increasing them, and destroying new anti-ship ballistic missiles intended to sink U.S. aircraft carriers instead of building more types and more of them. The Ma-Xi summit provided little incentive for Taiwanese, Americans and others to reduce their fear of the potential for Chinese aggression against Taiwan."
While it is Fisher said it was welcome that Ma mentioned to Xi of Taiwan's concern about the Chinese military threat to Taiwan, — especially its missiles — to Xi, he called it Fisher said, but "it is "shocking that Xi's opening response was that Chinese missiles ‘are not aimed at Taiwan.’"
Fisher said that The fact that Chinese missile companies' have developedment of two new second-generation short-range ballistic missile (SRBMs) systems, which use precision-guided missiles based on artillery rockets that and could increase the number of missiles per launcher from 1 to 5 or 8 one to five or eight, is troubling. If they replaced all first-generation SRBMs with second-generation systems, the total number of SRBMs facing Taiwan could increase from about 1,200 to 4,000 or more, Fisher said.
Despite the problems, Cossa said that, more than anything else, this was Ma's moment to shine and to raise the stature of both himself, personally, and of Taiwan. his personal stature and Taiwan's.
"I think he did both quite nicely, DPP complaints notwithstanding." Cossa said. "Couching his meeting as an effort to preserve the status quo was, in my view, clever, since [DPP presidential candidate] Tsai keeps talking about how she supports the status quo, even while refusing to define it. This will put added pressure on her to define her version of the status quo, but I doubt it will be a game-changer for the KMT or for cross-strait relations."
"Of course, election year politics will prevent the opposition from giving Ma credit for anything, but history will look more favorably on him as a result of this meeting," Cossa said. "He will always be the first democratically elected Taiwan leader to meet with the leader of China. This helps solidify his legacy and puts his period in office in a more positive light historically. My guess is that this was his primary objective, and he achieved it."
Fisher said believes that if policy-makers in Washington who believe that a free and democratic Taiwan serves US strategic interests in Asia, then Washington has to be sure that it constantly provides Taiwan with statements and concrete actions demonstrating US support.