18 October 2019
Ma Ying-jeou (left) and Xi Jinping had cordial talks in Singapore last weekend that went nowhere. Photo: Bloomberg
Ma Ying-jeou (left) and Xi Jinping had cordial talks in Singapore last weekend that went nowhere. Photo: Bloomberg

Ma and KMT the losers after a meeting filled with empty words

After all the fanfare, now we see how exaggerated the hype was for the meeting between Taiwan’s President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) and his mainland counterpart, Xi Jinping (習近平).

Nothing much that was concrete was uttered by the two leaders.

The meet-up in Singapore concluded shoddily despite its “historic significance”, as puffed up by pro-Beijing news outlets.

If Ma had ridden a wave of support back home, he would have managed to make more of the occasion.

Yet I wonder if even he himself is not sure what’s next, given the feeble, timorous stance he displayed throughout the talk and dinner.

A sober declaration, in front of the mainland leader, about the “1992 Consensus” (one China, two interpretations) was the centerpiece of the gathering, Ma told reporters on the flight home.

Sadly, Ma still missed the chance to get things straight.

He should have stressed the “two interpretations” to Xi, as Beijing itself has always been dead certain about the “one China” part.

Also, rather than preaching about hackneyed topics to Xi’s deaf ears, Ma should have dedicated his open speech to making sure the Kuomintang’s justification for its own interpretation, that the Republic of China (ROC), ruled by the KMT — not the People’s Republic of China (PRC), ruled by the Communist Party — is the only genuine and legitimate China, is seen and heard by the other side.

The fact is that even the opposition Democratic Progressive Party and its leader, Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文), have accepted the tacit understanding that Taiwan belongs to the ROC.

Tsai even attended this year’s ROC National Day celebrations, lending Ma more legitimacy and a stronger footing in his talks with Xi.

Before the closed-door discussion, Ma should have stated, loud and clear, what “one China” means in his speech in front of worldwide media.

But what he did was just the opposite: “one China and the ethnic bond of flesh and blood” in front of the media, and “ROC and two interpretations” in private.

The opposition has ridiculed Ma for making the ROC look like something that could not be mentioned in public and that the “1992 Consensus” means “one China, one interpretation”.

Cross-strait relations have eased during the past few years, and Ma deserves much of the credit.

But misgivings have also emerged — whether they be about mainland tourists pouring in, the merger and acquisition spree of Chinese capital or the thinly veiled pro-Beijing stance of some media.

Many Taiwanese have begun to wonder if peace in the Taiwan Strait has come at the cost of the island’s sovereignty.

All this gave birth to last year’s Sunflower student movement.

Ma’s blunders at the meeting may have further made voters believe that the DPP is a more reliable defender of their freedoms and the status quo.

As the ruling party, the KMT aimed to make the most of the meeting, “colluding with an external power” in an attempt to shore up morale with elections merely two months away.

Is the meeting going to help the embattled KMT?

We can look at it from a few angles.

Is Taiwan deriving any solid benefit from the meeting?

Is the island’s sovereignty being respected and enhanced, or belittled?

Will Beijing continue to show its goodwill before the elections?

Ma did raise the concern of the mainland’s military bullying, in particular Beijing’s deployment of troops and thousands of missiles.

Yet, Xi’s response was rather bland: they are not targeted at the people of Taiwan but are part of a military strategy for the whole region.

Ma had to admit afterward that he was dissatisfied by the answer.

As for the mainland’s diplomatic containment, Ma told Xi that Taiwan’s participation in international bodies should be viewed from a more pragmatic perspective, stressing that requesting the United Nations to ban ROC passport holders from entering its premises is a step too far.

Xi merely replied that Taiwan’s external relations will be considered on a case-by-case basis.

Ma tried to assure Taiwanese that his administration will follow up with the matter, but as Tsai is poised to be the next president, Beijing has no reason to be more accommodating.

Xi did note that Taiwan is welcome to join the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank under an appropriate name, subject to Beijing’s approval.

If Taiwan becomes a Trans-Pacific Partnership member without a hitch, then Beijing will try to win the island over; otherwise it can simply stonewall the process at the cost of Taiwan’s trade and economic well-being.

Both parties agreed to set up a direct hotline between Beijing’s Taiwan Affairs Office and Taipei’s Mainland Affairs Council.

But I suspect direct liaison will make Beijing’s interference and clandestine operations more convenient.

The meeting appeared to be conducted on an equal basis, as it took place in a third country and both parties addressed each other as “mister” and shared the expenses for the dinner.

But other aspects suggest otherwise.

For instance, journalists from Taiwan had to replace their reporter’s permits bearing a date based on the ROC calendar (which counts the number of years since the founding of the Republic of China in 1912 and was used on the mainland until the Communists took over in 1949) with permits using the commonly used Gregorian calendar.

It’s a tiny thing, but a clear signal of Beijing’s desire to deny Taiwan the smallest shred of distinctiveness.

It won’t be way off the mark to conclude that the meeting was a rather ad hoc one, as Xi felt the need to meet Ma at a time when the KMT will be an underdog in the coming elections.

If not this time, Xi probably won’t have a chance to meet Taiwan’s leader in the future, especially after Tsai wins.

Polls also show the island’s younger generations feel increasingly detached from the mainland and that reunification is now the last thing on their mind.

Whether or not Beijing is prepared to lend it more help, the KMT is doomed.

A rout in the elections is a sure thing if Beijing opts to stay put.

On the other hand, if it tries to offer economic sweeteners, the DPP will have fresh evidence with which to attack the KMT for selling out Taiwan for its own sake.

Forget the Ma-Xi meeting and its hollow posturings — it is the elections in January that will be Taiwan’s political watershed.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on Nov. 9.

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