The Historic Xi-Ma Meeting: The Bigger Picture


The Xi-Ma summit is a game-changer. After 66 years of separation, the leaders of the People’s Republic of China and the Republic of China held a meeting in Singapore, sending shock waves throughout Asia and beyond. Already, commentators and scholars are trying to gauge the impact of this historic meeting on China and Taiwan’s future (see here, here, and here). Despite their attempts, most fail to understand the larger historical implications of the summit.

For a starters, most analysts were quick to point out the possible calculations behind the summit. One persistent aspect is how much Xi and Ma would gain politically. Such analyses are not necessarily wrong, but they do overlook the historic nature of the summit, thus hugely underestimating the potential meaning of this summit.

After all, this is the first time for leaders from both sides to shake hands and sit down and talk with each other as equals. Both Xi and Ma reemphasized the “One China Principle” and the “1992 Consensus.” If nothing else, this joint-statement alone could bring the Nobel Peace Prize to these two brave and visionary leaders.

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Almost every analyst following cross-strait relations thought a meeting between Xi and Ma was all but impossible. The fact that Beijing and Taipei pulled this off demonstrates that the two sides are pragmatic, flexible, and strategically sensitive. In particular, Xi’s willingness to sit down with Ma as an equal demonstrates the sincerity and willingness of mainland China to seek peace in cross-strait relations. This move could only be made possible by a strong and flexible leader.

Many analysts have focused far too much attention on the upcoming 2016 presidential election in Taiwan. We have seen some predictable reactions from the main opposition, the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), as evidenced by Tsai Ing-wen’s strong words that the meeting was not the result of a democratic process. It is difficult to predict the impact of the Xi-Ma summit on the final outcome of the 2016 presidential election, but it seems clear that the DPP side can no longer simply cruise to electoral victory.

There is still a possibility for the ruling Kuomintang’s Eric Chu to win the presidential election, although this seems unlikely based on the latest polls. What is more interesting is the likely impact of the summit on the legislative elections, where the DPP is poised to win by a large margin. Whatever the final outcome, one thing is clear: the issue of cross-strait ties is back in the elections and this is an area where the KMT has had a traditional advantage.

We should not focus too much attention on the upcoming election when gleaning the meaning of this meeting. Instead, we should look at this summit within the historical context of China’s rise and the changing global order. If anything, the Xi-Ma meeting demonstrated that Taiwan’s future cannot be separated from mainland China’s future. Whatever the 23 million people in Taiwan choose, a peaceful and stable relationship with mainland China should be Taipei’s top priority. On the other hand, China should fully recognize the rights of Taiwan’s people to voice their opinions and concerns. Mutual compromise is the only effective way forward.

If this meeting is indicative of future trends, we can expect more positive policies from both sides in coming months. Some parties, of course, might not be happy with these developments, but history will prove that Saturday’s summit is a game changer for cross-strait ties.

It took China and Taiwan 66 years to make this meeting happen. Hopefully, the next handshake will be much sooner.

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