China Power

Ma-Xi Meeting: Less About the Elections, More About the Message

Recent Features

China Power

Ma-Xi Meeting: Less About the Elections, More About the Message

Rather than trying to sway an election, Beijing may want to send a message to Taiwan’s next president.

Ma-Xi Meeting: Less About the Elections, More About the Message
Credit: Taiwanese protesters via Kenny /

More than six decades have passed since the end of the Chinese Civil War, which created two separate governments across the Taiwan Strait. On November 7, Taiwan’s President Ma Ying-jeou and his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping are to make history when they meet each other in Singapore. The meeting, reportedly facilitated by the Singaporean authorities, will be the first between leaders of the two sides of the Strait. Without precedent, much media attention has been given to the protocol of meeting: the two leaders will be meeting in their capacity as “leaders of the two sides” of the Strait and will address each other as “mister.” No agreement will be signed, and no joint statement will be issued.

Of equal notice is the purpose of the meeting. While Taiwan’s Presidential Office has defined the meeting as one “to consolidate cross-Strait peace and maintain the status quo in the Taiwan Strait,” debate has centered on the link between the leaders meeting and the presidential and legislative elections in January, where the KMT is expected to fare poorly. As the pro-independence presidential favorite Tsai Ing-wen of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) is likely secure in her front-runner status, the impact of the Ma-Xi meeting on the upcoming elections, if any, will be limited. Instead of trying to convert its superior economic and military strengths into direct political leverage over Taiwan politics, China likely seeks to send a warning through the meeting to Taiwan’s leaders that the one-China principle is an irreplaceable political basis for cross-Strait interactions.

Election Influence?

According to a timely poll conducted by PollcracyLab, an online survey platform by the Election Study Center at the National Chengchi University, Ma’s move to meet with Xi this Saturday is most favored by supporters of the Kuomintang (KMT). While 88.2 percent of supporters of the KMT candidate Eric Chu supported the upcoming Ma-Xi meeting, 56.7 percent of Tsai Ing-wen’s supporters were against it. The poll suggests that the Ma-Xi meeting is unlikely to cause a significant shift in voter alignment.

A poll released on October 15 by Taiwan Indicators Survey Research (TISR) found that 44.6 percent of respondents intended to vote for Tsai Ing-wen, 21 percent for Eric Chu, 12 percent for the chair of the People First Party James Soong, and 11.4 percent of them remained undecided. Even if the meeting did sway voters, it is hard to see how it could bridge that gap.

Indeed, any potential gains for the KMT from the Ma-Xi meeting are likely to limited, particularly given the skepticism that already surrounds it. First, suspicions have risen about the sensitive timing of the meeting, which is less than three months before the elections. Opposition parties and critics have expressed concerns that the Chinese Communist Party and KMT are hoping to nudge the elections in the KMT’s favor by showing that cross-Strait ties would be maintained if Taiwan remains under a KMT government. “How can people not think of this as a political operation intended to affect the election?” DPP spokesperson Cheng Yun-peng said. Others pointed to the lack of transparency and openness in the meeting arrangement. “To let the people know in such a hasty and chaotic manner is damaging to Taiwan’s democracy,” DPP presidential candidate Tsai Ing-wen stated.

Second, the meeting has exacerbated existing fears of Taiwan’s over-dependence on China, which in turn has amplified the rising Taiwanese identity. In what was seen as a backlash against the KMT’s cross-Strait policy, which has been criticized as too reliant to China, the KMT was trounced in local elections last year. In particular, younger Taiwanese are worried that Beijing’s increasing military and economic strength are limiting strategic options for Taiwan. In fact, since the announcement of the Ma-Xi meeting, small groups of protesters have gathered outside Taiwan’s parliament building, claiming that Ma was “selling out” Taiwan’s sovereignty by conducting “secret diplomacy” with the mainland.

If Not Elections, Then What?

Given the likely limited impact on election outcomes, why have the two leaders agreed to hold a historic meeting? For Taiwan’s Ma, the prevailing theory is that it is all about legacy. Ma has only about seven months left in office, and with his approval rating at a dismal 16.3 percent, becoming the first president to meet with his Mainland counterpart in nearly seven decades may be his last attempt to salvage his legacy.

As for Xi’s intentions, some are placing the meeting in the context of revent Chinese efforts to pursue a friendly diplomacy: resuming the China-Japan-South Korea trilateral summit, and undertaking a four-day state visit to the United Kingdom, ten years after the last official visit by a Chinese leader. These friendly diplomatic gestures are said to be designed improve China’s image amid its escalating tensions with the U.S. and neighboring countries in the South China Sea.

The meeting may well burnish Ma’s personal legacy and also fit Xi’s grand strategy of friendly diplomacy. But within the context of cross-Strait relations, while China may not aim at directly influencing the upcoming elections, it does have something to say about future cross-Strait ties. The Ma-Xi meeting is a platform for China to send a last warning to Taiwan’s leaders before a new Taiwanese president assumes office in May: the significance of upholding the “1992 consensus,” a verbal agreement between the KMT and the CPC to keep the concept of “one China” but accept strategic uncertainty surrounding its precise definition, in order to maintain cross-Strait ties. Commenting on the upcoming meeting, Zhang Zhijun, head of China’s Taiwan Affairs Office, underscored that the one-China principle, the essence of the 1992 consensus, has been the foundation for the “pragmatic arrangement” in the cross-Strait relations for the past seven years. China’s bottom line is clear: as long as Taiwan’s leaders accept the one-China principle, the peaceful development of the cross-Strait ties can be maintained.

China has repeatedly expressed concerns about a Taiwanese move toward independence if Tsai wins the election. In August, after James Soong announced his candidacy, potentially splitting the KMT vote, Zhijun warned Taiwan of having to choose between continuing the peaceful development of cross-Strait ties based on the 1992 consensus and returning to “the evil ways of Taiwan independence.”

For the KMT, the 1992 consensus was incorporated into its party platform that it adopted at the party’s national congress in July. For the DPP, however, while Tsai has promised to “treasure and secure” the accumulated outcomes of past negotiations and exchanges between Taipei and Beijing, she has refused to accept the 1992 consensus. Without upholding the one-China principle, the DPP has lacked a “common political foundation” to engage with the CPC. The upcoming meeting of the two leaders across the Taiwan Strait is a step forward in cross-Strait relations. By demonstrating that a breakthrough that can be achieved after years of adhering to the 1992 consensus, China aims to send a warning to future Taiwan’s leaders, reiterating the one-China principle as a condition for ongoing cross-Strait exchanges, and push the DPP into more strongly embracing the principle.

Emily S Chen is a recent graduate at Stanford University with a Master’s degree in East Asian Studies and a focus on international relations. She is a Silas Palmer Fellow with the Hoover Institution and is also a Young Leader with the Pacific Forum CSIS. Emily tweets @emilyshchen.