Later today Taiwan’s Mainland Affairs Council (MAC) Minister Wang Yu-chi will travel to China to meet his counterpart, Zhang Zhijun Director of China’s Taiwan Affairs Office (TAO). It is not the first time that representatives from China and Taiwan will have met, but it is the first time in six decades that officials from the two governments will meet in their official capacities.
Since Beijing views Taiwan as an unequal partner, indeed a province of China, previous contact has been conducted on a party to party basis or through semi-official foundations. Even negotiations for the breakthrough Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement, signed between the two sides in 2010, were carried out by non-government agencies. Does the fact that the two sides are meeting now signal that some kind of diplomatic breakthrough is in the offing?
The simple answer is that there is very little possibility of the meeting today resulting in anything more than agreements of a practical nature and perhaps further scheduled meetings. In and of itself, that is not insignificant. This meeting establishes a precedent and a mechanism for the two sides to engage, bypassing the semi-official Strait Exchange Foundation (Taiwan) and Association for Relations Across the Taiwan Straits (China). But the meeting is destined to disappoint anyone who expects substantive political agreements to emerge from it. If and when the conditions are right, which they currently are not, setting the scene for political negotiations would require many such meetings at the ministerial level. Some hope and others fear that this meeting is the first step in that direction.
Beijing’s position on Taiwan’s status and Taiwan’s relationship with the mainland is intractable. In part, the Communist Party’s legitimacy is tied up with Taiwan’s eventual unification. The party has inculcated such strong popular sentiment about Taiwan that there is very little room for concessions of any nature, except perhaps on the form that unification may ultimately take. Given Beijing’s position the only way that there can be any “progress” is if Taipei makes concessions.
Although there is speculation that President Ma is motivated by concerns about how future historians will record his role in reuniting the country, he is in no position to authorize such moves. While Taiwanese might enjoy the relative stability that Ma has brought to cross-Strait relations, there is very little support for initiating political discussions or moving to alter the status-quo. However, at this point in his second and final term, Ma is relatively free from concerns about public opinion. With approval ratings hovering around 10 percent, he is less heedful of public opinion than colleagues in his party who will face future elections. This is one reason why the legislature took the extraordinary step of placing restrictions on the MAC mission.
Acting on a proposal from the opposition DPP and TSU, the KMT-controlled legislature passed a bipartisan resolution circumscribing what the MAC Chairman can do during his visit. He is barred from signing agreements, and from negotiating or saying anything relating to Taiwan’s sovereignty. He himself has stated that he will stick to reiterating Taipei’s embrace of the 1992 Consensus–a position that Beijing thinks is too mild and wants to progress from, but which is divisive and controversial in Taiwan. On his return to Taiwan he will be required to brief the legislature on the meeting.
The legislative resolution is unusual because cross-Strait relations are constitutionally and traditionally the prerogative of the president. That it was issued in the name of his own party is yet another humiliation for President Ma, and an indication of the deep divisions that exist between Ma and his party. The fingerprints of Wang Jin-pyng, the KMT Speaker who Ma tried and failed to purge last fall, are on the resolution, but it is also indicative of the low level of trust that Ma enjoys.
Ma has previous history when it comes to China and the legislature. The Service Trade Agreement, the follow-on to the 2010 Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement (ECFA) between Taiwan and China that was the key policy of Ma’s first term, is currently stalled in the legislature. Ma’s administration negotiated the agreement without consulting the legislature–even legislators from his own party–and it has become one of the sources of his ongoing battle with Speaker Wang.
Speculation that the meeting today might lead to what would be an historic meeting with Xi Jinping–hypothetically at the APEC Leaders meeting in Beijing in November–is misplaced. Of course such a meeting is on President Ma’s wish list, but it is unthinkable that Beijing would entertain the idea. Beijing imposes a blanket ban on Taiwanese leaders’ participation in international organizations as part of its strategy to marginalize Taiwan in international society.
Beijing even protests Taiwanese leaders’ requests to transit the U.S. en route to Taiwan’s few remaining diplomatic allies in Central America. Why would it suddenly allow the Taiwan President the opportunity to rub shoulders with President Obama and others? Although Chinese policy toward Taiwan is more temperate nowadays, don’t forget that as recently as 1995 it fired live missiles off the coast of Taiwan in reaction to then-President Lee Teng-hui’s visit to Cornell, his alma mater. Moreover, Beijing continues its military build-up in the proximity of the Taiwan theatre, including substantial missile deployments.
There is no incentive for Beijing to diverge from a successful policy and set the precedent of allowing a Taiwanese president to attend a bilateral or multilateral meeting unless there are credible expectations of a definitive political breakthrough, which is just as unlikely.
Although cross-Strait relations are more to Beijing’s liking under the Ma leadership, there has been no move toward political negotiations and it is difficult to see how any political leader in Taiwan would be able to sell this idea to the electorate. The one time Ma floated the idea of a hypothetical peace accord during his re-election campaign in 2012, scathing criticisms quickly forced him to drop the issue.
Ma is nearing the end of his second term and Beijing has already started planning for potential successors in both of Taiwan’s main parties. The dynamics of the Taiwanese election cycle do create uncertainties for Beijing, and it may try to make progress while a pro-China president rules in Taiwan. But leaders in Beijing are confident that time is on their side, and whether it is under Ma or a future leader, ultimately Taiwan will be obliged to address political issues.
Dr. Jonathan Sullivan is Associate Professor and Deputy Director of the China Policy Institute, University of Nottingham. Michal Thim is a PhD student in the Taiwan Studies Program at the China Policy Institute and a research fellow at the Association for International Affairs.