18 January 2020

POLICY WATCH: Xi, Ma race against turning cross-strait tide

The push is on. President Xi Jinping wants Taiwan to finally deal with political issues that have remained unsettled since 1949, when the Communists won the civil war on the mainland. The goal is to realize Beijing’s so-called unification plan in the three years left before the end of the second term of Taiwan President Ma Ying-jeou, from the pro-Beijing Kuomintang.

Xi got the ball rolling with a meeting with Vincent Siew, Taiwan’s former vice president, in Indonesia on the sidelines of the APEC Summit on Oct. 6. It was the first time Xi had held talks with a political figure from the island during an international event.

But the meeting was no tea party. Political observers said Xi’s remarks during the meeting were designed to put pressure on Ma to cross Taiwan’s red line and confront the issue of reunification. The consensus on Taiwan is to persist with the status quo, neither returning to mainland rule nor pursuing independence. Beijing, however, is keen to bring Taipei under the one country, two systems umbrella. After all, Beijing has already come through with several economic stimulus offerings for Taiwan since Ma won the presidency in 2008.

Xi told Siew Beijing is ready to conduct equal consultations with Taiwan on cross-strait political issues under the “one China” framework and make reasonable arrangements.

“Both sides of the strait are one family … [and] we should strengthen communication and cooperation and jointly work for the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation,” Xi said.

Unlike his predecessors who put these matters on the back burner, Xi has given them urgency, saying “we cannot hand these problems down from generation to generation”. His mantra is that cross-strait political mutual trust and consolidation of a common political foundation are vital to peaceful development of cross-strait relations.

The comments suggest Beijing will not tolerate Ma’s administration dealing with cross-strait issues in accordance with the “three noes”: no unification, no war and no independence. Ma revived the policy as a way of avoiding a controversial political debate with the opposition, the pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party.

For its part, Taiwan is paying little heed to Xi’s comments. Siew, who was appointed by Ma as his special envoy to APEC summits, said both sides need greater understanding, adding that he and Xi did not discuss the possibility of a meeting between the two presidents.

Ma could do with progress on some front though. He is bleeding popularity at home, with his approval rating dropping to 9 percent last month after he ordered the filing of a lawsuit against Legislative Yuan Speaker Wang Jin-pyng over alleged illegal lobbying. Earlier this year, political observers speculated that Ma intended to meet Xi at an international event before his second term ends in 2016 to show his effort to break the ice in the cross-strait relationship. Leaders from both sides have not met once in the years since the declaration of the people’s republic.

However, Ma’s low rating and local government elections next year could prevent him from going too far too fast to please Beijing. The DPP could also win a majority of those elections and come back to take the presidency in 2016, having a chilling effect on cross-strait ties.

Links between Beijing and Taipei have improved since Ma took power in 2008 on a platform of promoting trade and reconciliation with the mainland.

In June 2010, Taiwan and China signed the landmark Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement, a pact widely seen as the boldest step yet toward reconciliation.

Taiwan has also been a major investor in China in recent years, providing more than US$100 billion in financing according to some estimates, as well as technological know-how.

– Contact the reporter at [email protected]




EJ Insight writer