Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou and Chinese President Xi Jinping met for the first time in Singapore on Saturday, marking the first-ever meeting between the top leaders of Taiwan and mainland China. As expected, the two men addressed each other as “mister” and spoke as the “leaders” (rather than the presidents) of Taiwan and China – a practical way of avoiding the fact that neither government officially recognizes its counterpart as legitimate.
There were no new agreements or joint statements issued at the meeting. Instead, the talks provided a way for Ma and Xi to look back at the past seven years of cross-strait relations, and to provide their blueprint for continuing the relationship under the next president. That president is likely to be Tsai Ing-wen, chair of the opposition Democratic Progressive Party, and indeed Tsai and the DPP seemed to be the intended audience for much of what Ma and Xi said.
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Xi used the meeting to continue to stress his bottom line for cross-strait relations. He underlined the kinship between Taiwan and China, saying their people are “one family”: “We are brothers who are still connected by our flesh even if our bones are broken,” Xi said in his opening remarks.
He also continued to push the “1992 Consensus” as the foundation for cross-strait relations. The 1992 Consensus refers to a bit of political sleight-of-hand, wherein both Taipei and Beijing agree that there is “one China,” without defining which government represents this China (naturally, both sides claim that right for themselves). The DPP, however, has never embraced this consensus, and Tsai has instead opted to frame her cross-strait approach as maintaining the status quo.
In his remarks, Xi offered a potential olive branch to DPP, which is considered by Beijing to be a pro-independence party: “No matter which party or organization, and no matter what they stood for in the past, as long as the 1992 Consensus and its core values are acknowledged, we stand ready to have contact.” But along with that came the warning that without the common political ground of the 1992 Consensus, “the boat of peaceful development will encounter terrifying waves or even capsize.”
Xi also repeated Beijing’s position that Taiwan independence represents the greatest threat to peaceful cross-strait relations.
Xi’s objectives were clear: demonstrate the effectiveness of the Ma administration’s approach to cross-strait relations, while providing additional warnings to Tsai and the rest of Taiwan about the constraints on the relationship. Ma’s goals were more complex: defend his approach to cross-strait relations, provide a blueprint for ties with mainland China that is acceptable to Taiwan’s people as well as Beijing, and thus implicitly position himself (and his party, the Kuomintang or KMT) as the responsible choice for handling cross-strait relations.
Ma’s Five-Point Plan for Cross-Strait Ties
Ma spent most of his opening remarks pointing to the progress made under his administration over the past seven years, with the Ma-Xi meeting as the culmination of those efforts. Ma said the 23 agreements signed between the two sides over the past seven years created space for numerous advancements, including exchanges of 8 million tourists a year and annual bilateral trade worth $170 billion. This is the “most peaceful and stable period” in cross-strait relations since 1949, Ma told Xi.
Ma offered a five-point plan for maintaining the “status quo” of peace and prosperity in the Taiwan Strait – purposefully using language that brings to mind Tsai’s promise to maintain the “status quo.” Ma’s first point: keep the 1992 Consensus, which he described as the “common political foundation” for the continued peaceful development of cross-strait relations. The fruits of the past seven years were only possible “because both sides jointly respected the 1992 Consensus,” Ma said. Here again, the intended target is Tsai and the DPP; the 1992 consensus is the only possible framework for cross-strait relations as laid out by both Xi and Ma.
Second, Ma said both sides should reduce hostilities and peacefully handle their disputes. This is primarily aimed at Beijing, which continues to see unification with Taiwan (by force, if necessary) as one of its primary goals. In his press conference after the meeting with Xi, Ma said he had expressed Taiwan’s concerns about Chinese missiles being deployed against Taiwan. Xi told him “these deployments do not target Taiwan,” Ma said.
Ma also said he had spoken to Xi about Beijing’s “hostility” when it comes to denying Taiwan participation in international activities and economic integration. Xi, in his opening remarks, said that China attaches great importance to the Taiwan people’s feelings about international participation. He also said Taiwan was welcome to join China’s Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) under an “appropriate” name, without referencing the fact that Taipei’s initial application was denied.
Ma’s third recommendation for cross-ties is continuing to broaden exchanges. He particularly noted that the two sides should rapidly conclude outstanding business, including trade agreements – a nod to the as-yet unratified Cross-Strait Service Trade Agreement. The CSSTA was signed in June 2013, but attempts by the KMT to get it through Taiwan’s legislature sparked the Sunflower protests of spring 2014, with protesters accusing Ma and the KMT of not being transparent about their cross-strait policymaking.
Ma’s fourth proposal is simple: establish a cross-strait hotline between senior officials at the Mainland Affairs Council on Taiwan and the Taiwan Affairs Office in Beijing. According to TAO chief Zhang Zhijun (who hosted China’s post-meeting press conference, rather than Xi), Beijing believes such a hotline could be helpful to avoid misunderstanding.
Ma’s last point was that both sides should cooperate to “revitalize” the Chinese nation, using language distinct from but similar to Xi’s catchphrase of the “great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation” (Ma’s “振興中華” or “振兴中华” vs Xi’s “中华民族伟大复兴 ”, for those who read Chinese). This was an interesting choice on Ma’s part: to play into Xi’s “China dream” rhetoric at a time when more and more Taiwanese are claiming a distinct cultural and social identify for their island.
Ma made a point of emphasizing cultural and ethnic ties between Taiwan and the mainland, his nod to Xi’s “one family” idea. People on both sides of the strait are Chinese, descendants of the “Yellow Emperor,” he said. Ma also quoted from both the Shang Shu, one of the Five Classics of ancient Chinese literature, and Confucian scholar Zhang Zai in a shout out to this shared culture. He spoke of using the wisdom of Chinese culture to protect cross-strait ties.
But Ma also made subtle nods to the differences between China and Taiwan, speaking of the “different systems” on both sides of the strait. Both sides must respect the values and ways of life of the people, he said. Ma also urged both sides to deal with “sensitive issues” by “squarely facing reality” – code for Taipei’s attempts to get Beijing to accept the fundamental fact that Taiwan has its own governance system.
In his press conference, Ma described his talks with Xi as “cordial” and “positive.” According to Ma, Xi came off as “pragmatic, flexible, and frank” in the discussions. But in a clear sign of China’s mixed feelings toward the event, Taiwan’s Central News Agency reported censorship of Ma’s remarks in China. According to CNA, the China Central Television broadcasts of the event cut away when Ma was speaking and eliminated Xi’s reference to Ma as the “much revered Mr. Ma.”
Back in Taiwan, meanwhile, Ma’s opponents spoke out. Several hundred protesters marched in Taipei to show their disapproval of the meeting, according to Reuters. Tsai also made her feelings clear. According to her statement, Ma didn’t go far enough in defending Taiwan and its values: “We had hoped that President Ma would speak about Taiwan’s democracy, freedom, and the existence of the Republic of China. More importantly, that he would mention the freedom of the Taiwanese people to make their own choices. However, none of these were mentioned.”
“It is with regret that we see the only result from the Ma-Xi meeting was their attempt to limit the people’s ability to choose the future of cross-strait relations by setting political preconditions on the international stage,” Tsai continued.