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On November 7, Chinese President Xi Jinping will meet with Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou in Singapore. It will be the first such meeting since Mao Zedong’s Communist forces defeated Chiang Kai-shek’s Kuomintang government during the 1949 civil war and forced it to retreat to Taiwan. The visit, touted as “historic” and “surprising,” is certainly momentous, but it could have little immediate impact upon cross-strait relations.
For the last 50-plus years, Chinese-Taiwanese relations have been rocky. But since Ma’s ruling Kuomintang Party (KMT) won the Taiwanese general election in early 2008 and then again in 2012, the two have established increasingly close economic ties and an uneasy peace. China has pushed for a "peaceful development" approach to cross-strait relations, which is partly in line with Ma's stance on the issue—particularly his desire to greatly boost cross-strait economic exchange. Direct commercial flights between Taiwan and the mainland were launched, and restrictions on investments and trade between the two countries loosened. China is now Taiwan’s largest trading partner and by most recent measures makes up 38 percent of its exports. Ma also enacted measures to greatly increase the number of mainland visitors to Taiwan—they now make up roughly 40 percent of all the island’s tourists—and enabled Taiwanese students to study at mainland universities.
In preparation for the meeting, Ma’s press office has released a statement calling the purpose of the summit to “consolidate cross-strait peace and maintain the status quo.” By status quo, Ma means "no independence and no unification,” a position that China considers temporary, even if this limbo remains in place for several decades more. China’s state Xinhua news has reiterated, on the other hand, that there would be dialogue “promoting the peaceful development of cross–Taiwan Strait relations,” which is a comparatively neutral variation on Paramount Leader Deng Xiaoping’s “peaceful unification” policy. To avoid thorny political issues, Xi and Ma will be addressing each other as xiansheng, or “Mr.,” rather than “President,” which would raise issues over sovereignty that neither likely wants to get into. Similarly, they will refer to each other’s territories as “the two coasts” instead of their official names—“People’s Republic of China” and “Republic of China”—in order for each to avoid officially recognizing the other as a legitimate entity.
Over the years, China has conditioned any meetings with Taiwan upon acceptance of its “one China” policy, also known as the “1992 consensus,” which stresses that China and Taiwan are one country, even if the two governments disagree on who governs it. Ma supports this view, and in 2008, high-level meetings resumed. That year, then Chinese President Hu Jintao met with the Taiwanese vice-president-elect, Vincent Siew. And just last month, Ma noted during a television interview, “Under the framework of the ‘1992 consensus,’ the two sides of the Taiwan Strait have been able to smoothly maintain separate governance.” The summit in Singapore is thus the culmination of nearly a decade of warming relations.
If anything, the two leaders may regret that their meeting didn’t come sooner. The summit arrives just as Ma finishes his second term as president. He will step down after presidential and parliamentary elections in January, leaving office quite unpopular. (His approval rating plunged from 68 percent to a low of nine percent over the course of his presidency.) In large part, many Taiwanese, especially young Taiwanese, are skeptical of Ma’s pro-China stance. They believe that greater economic integration with China will enable Beijing to gradually exert its control over Taiwan. In 2014, there were massive student protests, known as the Sunflower Movement, over a proposed service trade agreement with China, and it was tabled. And so far, there has also been a smattering of protests in Taipei over the upcoming meeting between Xi and Ma. It is not surprising, then, that Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) candidate Tsai Ing-wen, who is against unification, is now poised to become Taiwan’s new leader; her win could put an end to cross-strait rapprochement. (Former President Chen Shui-bian was also from the DPP.)
If the summit between Xi and Ma had come two years earlier, it might have led to a more concrete political breakthrough—that is, the beginning of political dialogue and even negotiation for achieving peace and stability. Now that window is closing, at least in the predictable future, because cross-strait relations will depend heavily on the behavior of Taiwan’s new leadership. Beijing adheres to its “one China” position, and it will continue to do so. Tsai, with her record of pro-independence, has dodged the issue, neither endorsing the one-country view nor explicitly denying it in public.
For now, China has played a more reactive role in cross-strait politics, issuing periodic warnings that it may use more forceful means against Taiwan to suppress any potential attempts to assert its independence. Undoubtedly, Beijing will continue to watch Tsai and her party and adjust its policies accordingly. Tsai will probably continue to skirt the issue, as she does now, but this may only increase Beijing's wariness of her.
Even though no papers will be signed and no significant agenda will be discussed during the summit, the meeting may prove significant in the long run in opening cross-strait dialogue and, possibly, in setting a course for stability and even an easier peace.