22 October 2016
Protesters brandish their loyalties ahead of Taiwan's presidential election. Pro-independence candidates are leading election surveys. Photo: Reuters
Protesters brandish their loyalties ahead of Taiwan's presidential election. Pro-independence candidates are leading election surveys. Photo: Reuters

Ma and Xi: Expect less talk, more body language

What does the tree hugger say to the tree?

Not a lot, apparently, in the case of Taiwan President Ma Ying-jeou and Chinese President Xi Jinping, who are expected to meet in Singapore on Saturday.

We will be watching the first meeting between the leaders of the cross-strait rivals since the nationalists were forced from the mainland into Taiwan in 1949.

And it won’t be for what they’re going to say to each other but for their body language.

Ma, Taiwan’s most pro-China president, will be careful not to be seen embracing Beijing too quickly.

After all, most Taiwanese still prefer to distance themselves from the “communist ogre” across the water.

Also, a presidential election on the island is less than three months away.

Taiwanese will choose which one between Ma’s Kuomintang (KMT) and the pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) will best protect their cherished freedoms and way of life.

But to be sure, the meeting will be a milestone.

Until now, cross-strait relations have been confined to trade and investment.

And neither Taipei nor Beijing has been keen to push political exchanges too much too soon.

With Taiwanese elections less than 80 days away, the mere fact that the historic meeting is taking place at all will be a factor.

Ma, whose nationalist coalition is trailing the DPP in election surveys, hopes it will be a game changer, although he is not running in the polls.

But Tsai Ing-Wen, the DPP standard bearer, will be looking for any signs Ma is cozying up to Xi to galvanize support for her party. 

It’s conceivable Taipei and Beijing will try to frame the election as an opportunity to strengthen economic ties.

That will play very well to the Taiwanese business sector which already enjoys preferential treatment in the mainland and is only waiting for the floodgates to China’s 9 trillion yuan (US$1.42 trillion) economy, the second largest in the world, to open.

Then there is the small matter of peace.

The KMT makes the stronger argument for peaceful co-existence for both sides by leveraging its friendly ties with Beijing.

But with its fiercely nationalistic rhetoric, the DPP is seen as an itchy finger on the trigger of potential conflict. China has not ruled out reunifcation by force.

It’s almost like telling voters to “go Kuomintang for peace or DPP for war”.

Many Taiwanese do recognize a sense of inevitability about their island’s political future in the face of increasing Chinese pressure.

They also acknowledge that Beijing will stop at nothing to try to influence domestic politics.

The DPP lost the 2012 election because it failed to convince voters that it’s the right party to keep the peace.

Which is why Tsai has set aside the party’s mission statement on Taiwan independence in this election campaign.

She is promising to maintain the status quo over cross-strait relations without overplaying her hand on the party’s pro-independence stance.

Tsai knows the Taiwanese people’s instinctive fear of armed conflict with the mainland and is bending over backwards to avoid it.

The strategy seems to work.

Her mild response to the Singapore meeting shows she is not closed to the idea of engaging Beijing at the highest levels if she wins.

We shall see.

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EJ Insight writer

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