The Debate

China and Taiwan’s Window of Opportunity at APEC

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The Debate

China and Taiwan’s Window of Opportunity at APEC

Beijing has a rare opportunity to host President Ma on its own terms.

China and Taiwan’s Window of Opportunity at APEC
Credit: Beijing via

In a Taiwan Affairs Office (TAO) press conference on September 24, when asked about the prospect of a meeting between President Ma Ying-jeou of Taiwan and President Xi Jinping of China, the spokesman adamantly insisted that if the leaders of the two sides of the Taiwan Strait should meet, it should be an internal affair, and there is no need to use an international forum for such occasion. Observers interpreted this as a rejection of a Ma-Xi meeting at the upcoming APEC summit, but the door is actually not completely shut. Beijing still has time to consider and rectify its stand if it is serious about deepening ties with Taipei.

APEC is the ideal international forum, where officials from both the mainland and Taiwan have been able to meet and converse, and the APEC summit in Beijing this November will be the best venue for a Ma-Xi meeting. There are many reasons for this.

First, APEC is one of the few important international organizations, in addition to the World Trade Organization (WTO) and the Asian Development Bank (ADB), in which both Taiwan and Mainland China take part. Although all three function around ministerial meetings, APEC has an additional “Economic Leaders’ Summit.” In the past, Taiwan’s leader has been invited to participate in the summit by the host country. Since there is a tacit understanding that the president of the Republic of China will not appear side by side with the president of the People’s Republic of China on these occasions, he politely declines the invitation and asks someone to attend the meeting on his behalf. However, APEC’s membership is not based on the notion of sovereign nation states but economic identities (both Taiwan and Hong Kong are members). If no special envoy from Taiwan is chosen, it will allow Ma to meet with Xi and still avoid the issue of sovereignty.

Second, Taiwan has sent the minister of economic planning, business tycoons, and even the president of Academia Sinica as a special envoy to attend the summit. At the 2002 APEC summit in Shanghai, the pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) government attempted to send former Vice President Lee Yuan-tsu on behalf of President Chen Shui-bian. The mainland government duly rejected the attempt. But since the KMT came back to power in 2008, Ma has been able to send former vice presidents Lien Chan and Vincent Siew to the APEC summit without opposition from Beijing. This suggests that APEC is indeed a forum where mainland China can show flexibility. A Ma-Xi meeting is another opportunity for Beijing to demonstrate goodwill towards Taipei, instead of rigidity.

Further, APEC is an international organization focused on economic and trade issues. At the summit in Bali last year, the chairman of Taiwan’s Mainland Affairs Council Wang Yu-chi accompanied Siew and served as his “advisor” for the meeting. He even met briefly with Zhang Zhijun, Director of Taiwan’s Affairs Office (TAO). Thus, even at an economic international organization such as APEC, it is possible to have political contact. If a Wang-Zhang meeting was possible, why can’t Ma-Xi meet?

Lastly, if the summit were held by another member state, mainland China would have less ability to control the unintended effects of a Ma-Xi meeting. But with Beijing hosting this summit, it can minimize uncertainties. It usually takes more than a decade for an APEC member to have its turn hosting a summit. When China hosts its next APEC summit, Ma will be out of office and the KMT might not be the ruling party. Even if a Ma-Xi meeting’s symbolism is greater than its substance, the opportunity should not be overlooked.

Because of these considerations, Taipei has begun to promote the idea of a meeting. First, in an interview with Hong Kong’s Asian Weekly, Ma clearly expressed his interest in such a meeting. He tactfully said the APEC Beijing summit would be a great opportunity for the “leaders” of both sides to meet, instead of the using the sensitive title head of state.

This past May, on the eve of the sixth anniversary of his inauguration, Ma again raised the same issue when interviewed by Global Views Monthly. He pointed out how clever President Bill Clinton was in 1993, when the U.S. convened the first APEC Economic Leader’s Meeting, by using the phrase “leaders” instead of head of state, prime minister or president. Since the participants are not states but member economies, the meetings became informal. In other words, the venue exists for a Ma-Xi meeting that is simple and most likely to be accepted in Taiwan. In the interview, Ma confessed that Beijing appeared to have difficulties in making this possible, and his government is still waiting for the opportunity.

The reason that Ma has been hopeful about such a historic summit with Xi lies in the fact that cross-Strait relations have improved since he came to power in 2008. Instead of tension and antagonism, relations across the Taiwan Strait have been characterized by rapprochement and détente. Four areas have witnessed substantial change because of this relaxation: diplomacy, participation in international organizations, the signing of free trade agreements, and cross-Strait negotiations.

The diplomatic truce initiated by Ma, though never positively responded to by Beijing, has been adhered to so far as both sides ceased to engage in checkbook diplomacy to win diplomatic allies. Even after Gambia broke off diplomatic ties with Taiwan in November 2013, Mainland China has yet to extend recognition to this African country. Other allies of Taipei that have approached Beijing and wanted to switch recognition have so far met with resistance.

In the realm of international organizations, even though Taiwan has not been admitted as a member or observer to the coveted World Health Organization (WHO), it has, at least with China’s acquiescence, been invited to attend the World Health Assembly (WHA) since 2009. Finally, Taipei was invited as a special guest to participate in the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) meeting in 2013. These breakthroughs might appear to be inconsequential, but they are in fact a significant departure from Beijing’s policy of blocking during the rule of the DPP in 2000-2008.

Taiwan signed free trade agreements (FTAs) with New Zealand and Singapore in 2013. Even though both countries already have FTAs with Beijing, Chinese authorities did not obstruct the process.

Finally, in terms of cross-Strait ties, the most visible evidence has been the resumption of talks between China’s Association of Relations Across the Taiwan Strait (ARATS) and Taiwan’s Strait Exchange Foundation (SEF) and the roughly 20 agreements signed by the two semi-official organizations. Thus, in this period of relaxation and improvement of relations, Ma’s government has reason to be hopeful for such a meeting.

In the past, Beijing’s response to Taipei’s initiatives has been cautious and slow, sometimes to the detriment of cross-Strait relations. For example, when Taiwan proposed the “One China with Respective Interpretation” or the “1992 consensus” to counter China’s “One China” principle, mainland China simply ignored it. Later, when President Lee Teng-hui introduced the “special state-to-state relations” idea and the DPP’s Chen Shui-bian offered the even more unacceptable proposition of “one state on each side of the Taiwan Strait,” Beijing came back and found the “One China with Respective Interpretation” proposal an astute compromise.

Similarly, Chinese communists in the past emphasized that “there is only one China in the world and Taiwan is part of China.” Taipei’s counterview that “both Taiwan and Mainland are parts of China” was not initially acknowledged by Beijing, but has now become its official position. In 2000 when the KMT presidential candidate Lien Chan brought up the campaign slogan of “no unification, no independence and no hostility,” Chinese communists did not respond well. In 2008 when another KMT presidential candidate Ma Ying-jeou raised a similar slogan of “no unification, no independence and no armed conflicts,” it had already become the mainstream view in Taiwan governing cross-strait relations.

As long as Taiwan does not advocate independence, the Mainland government should not immediately spurn its proposals, as this would serve only to antagonize the Taiwanese people, whom the Chinese authorities are trying to win over. If the KMT had not returned to power in 2008, the “1992 consensus” would have ended up as a footnote in history. Even if Beijing had chosen to take up the offer, Taiwan might have already moved away from the “One China” framework and leaned towards “one state on each side of the Taiwan Strait,” and wouldn’t accept the argument that both Taiwan and the mainland are parts of one China.

Beijing has often looked inflexible in dealing with cross-Strait relations. However, when the MAC’s Wang accompanied Vincent Siew to the last APEC meeting in Indonesia, and greeted Zhang Zhijun of the TAO using his official title, it showed that Beijing could be flexible if needed. To Beijing, it is not a question of whether a Ma-Xi meeting is feasible, but whether it is desirable.

In addition, Taiwan’s gains in the international arena have actually been quite limited. It has had observer status with the WHA for five years, but has not been promoted to a regular member. Within the WHO it has neither observer nor regular member status. After five years of former Vice President Lien Chan representing Ma at the APEC summit, Siew went to the meeting in Indonesia last year on Ma’s behalf. Again, there was no new breakthrough. A Ma-Xi meeting would definitely be an historical step in cross-Strait ties.

In short, the APEC forum is a golden opportunity for a Ma-Xi meeting because trust between Beijing and Taipei is as strong as it has ever been. Ma is scheduled to step down in 2016 and the pro-independence DPP could come back to power, ushering in a period of cross-Strait uncertainty. With 10 years as the supreme leader of the People’s Republic of China, Hu Jintao never hosted an APEC meeting in China. Xi has just one opportunity to take advantage of the forum, and could secure his place in history with such a meeting. And he could take advantage of his position as host to contain any anxieties that a Ma-Xi meeting might somehow present an image of Taiwan as a separate state or sovereign entity.

Chen-shen J. Yen is a Research Fellow at the Institute of International Relations, National Chengchi University, Taipei, Taiwan.