21 September 2019
Taiwan's leader Ma Ying-jeou (above) has faced criticism at home over his planned meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping this weekend in Singapore. Photos: Reuters
Taiwan's leader Ma Ying-jeou (above) has faced criticism at home over his planned meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping this weekend in Singapore. Photos: Reuters

Don’t expect anything from the Ma-Xi meeting

Taiwan President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九), who has seen his reputation get dented over the years, is now eyeing a chance to redefine his legacy before he steps down from office next year.

Ma hopes a landmark meeting with China’s leader Xi Jinping (習近平) in Singapore this Saturday will earn him a better place in Taiwan’s history books.

Now, are the hopes justified? Will the meeting with Xi actually be of any help to Taiwan?

Veteran politician Lee Teng-hui (李登輝), who was Taiwan’s president from 1988 to 2000, has warned that Ma could compromise Taiwan’s interests before stepping down in May next year.

The opposition Democratic Progressive Party and the pan-green coalition have said that the sudden announcement of the Ma-Xi talks have come as a huge shock.

Ma has little to show for his more than seven years in office other than many blunders. Quite a few of his cabinet members and cohorts have fallen foul of corruption investigators.

The only achievement that Ma can claim is relatively smooth relations with Beijing, given that nothing has happened so far outside the script during his tenure.

Garnering support for his stance – specifically, “one China, two interpretations (一中各表)” — and the maintaining status quo is what Ma wants.

In recent years, Ma has never been shy about his desire for such a meeting, although the proposals were all turned down by the other side.

Xi, with all the unlimited powers that make him the de facto emperor of China, remained lukewarm, especially after last year’s Sunflower student movement that stemmed from the passage of a cross-strait service trade agreement.

The Beijing leader had during the past year let go of ideal occasions twice for a high-level meeting on the Chinese soil – the APEC Beijing summit in November last year and the Boao Forum in Hainan in May.

So why did Xi have a sudden change of heart now?

Kuomintang’s odds of victory in next year’s election have ranged from slim to almost none even after its chairman Eric Chu Li-luan (朱立倫) replaced the non-starter Hung Hsiu-chu (洪秀柱) as the candidate.

Chu’s popularity rating trails that of DPP’s Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) by almost 20 percentage points. The prospects are so dire that KMT may even loss its majority of the seats in the Legislative Yuan.

Beijing is now worried that with KMT’s looming rout, many of its efforts to grab control of the island will be in vain when DPP comes into power. That’s why Xi must meet Ma at such a vital juncture.

It’s ironic to see that when KMT is on thin ice, Ma has become the only one who can milk the crisis to his own advantage.

Moreover, Ma has emerged to be more aggressive than Xi, as can be seen in the fact that the meeting will take place in a third country.

And, contrary to Beijing’s previous claims that Taiwan is just a “province”, the two parties will, on a reciprocal basis, address each other as “mister”. Ma stated in advance that no deals will be signed, nor will there be any joint declaration.

Meanwhile, Beijing’s low-key approach remains a mystery.

That said, initial reaction in Taiwan has been negative, with stern criticism from DPP that Ma has violated his pledges about the prerequisite for such talks with mainland leaders: genuine need arising from the political reality, general consent from the people of Taiwan and a supervisory role for the legislature.

Some have wondered whether there would be a secret agreement between Ma and Xi.

Tsai’s words are the most representative: Ma should never demarcate Taiwan’s political future with the Chinese leader, nor should he pledge anything that he cannot be responsible for, she said.

The way Ma handled the whole issue, keeping it as a top secret until a sudden announcement, has riled not just the opposition.

Some senior KMT members were also kept in dark as they got the news not from Ma but from the media. 

A discussion that may decide the shape of things to come for Taiwan was arranged entirely behind closed doors.

Ma, eager to leave his own legacy, has earned himself more infamy in Taiwan’s political arena.

Beijing, meanwhile, is in a dilemma of its own.

Some of its posturings, like withdrawal of missiles or allowing Taiwan to join some international organizations, could help MKT in the coming elections.

But if KMT still fails, then all those concessions will become worthless.

Given all these factors, one can only conclude that the weekend talks between Ma and Xi won’t deliver anything concrete.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on Nov. 5.

Translation by Frank Chen

[Chinese version 中文版]

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Former full-time member of the Hong Kong Government’s Central Policy Unit, former editor-in-chief of the Hong Kong Economic Journal