Nothing out of the ordinary happened during last week’s historic meeting between Chinese President Xi Jinping and Taiwanese leader Ma Ying-jeou.
The two cross-strait rivals stuck to the script and imagery. One looked the part of a leader with little interest in his remaining days in office; the other appeared to have a firm hand on the lever of power.
The Singapore meeting was the first of its kind in 66 years. The last such-high level talks took place between Mao Zedong and Chiang Kai-shek in August 1945.
After Japan’s final surrender, Chiang, then president of the Republic of China and Kuomintang (KMT) chairman, invited Mao for peace talks in Chongqing, the provisional capital.
Two months later, the two agreed to avoid a civil war and work toward a democratic China.
But the Chinese Civil War (1946-1949) broke out in less than a year.
The nationalist government suffered a crushing defeat that forced Chiang to flee to Taiwan.
Xi and Ma are only the latest players in the festering conflict, with neither side prepared to call a retreat.
It’s naive to think that their meeting has led to genuine cooperation merely because they have agreed that “blood is thicker than water”.
A direct emergency response hotline between Beijing’s Taiwan Affairs Office and Taipei’s Mainland Affairs Council was the only concrete outcome of the talks.
Both Xi and Ma did reaffirm the 1992 Consensus – one China, two interpretations — but nothing was made in writing.
Two former Taiwan presidents — Lee Teng-hui and Chen Shui-bian — have disavowed the principle, calling it “consensus without any consensus”.
The 1992 Consensus is the KMT’s justification for proposed talks with the Chinese Communist Party. The Taiwanese opposition would have none of it.
Which explains why Beijing cannot hold talks with the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP).
The DPP presidential candidate, Tsai Ing-wen, stands with Lee and Chen.
Unless the KMT keeps its ruling status, which is highly unlikely, high-level talks between the two governments can hardly continue.
Xi tried to project magnanimity but he dodged Ma’s pointed question about Chinese missiles aimed at Taiwan.
Taiwan Vice President Wu Den-yih compared it to a loaded pistol on a negotiation table.
It’s apparent Beijing deeply distrusts Taiwan. Beijing believes only its superior military might can make the KMT toe the line and ensure the DPP does nothing to foment Taiwan independence.
This is all wishful thinking.
The fact is neither the KMT nor the DPP is fazed by China’s saber-rattling.
Taiwan has been building up its own armed forces, tapping United States defense contractors such as Lockheed Martin and Raytheon with fat orders.
In 2005, the National People’s Congress, China’s legislature, approved the Anti-Secession Law, giving the president unrestricted powers to defend the country’s territorial integrity.
Taiwan politicians were unmoved.
There’s no denying that bilateral trade and investment have strengthened but when it comes to political exchanges or reunification, Beijing has no sway over the KMT or DPP.
Washington’s pivot to Asia has somehow helped tone down Beijing’s rhetoric.
Also, Tokyo is making its own noises after it changed its peace constitution to boost its military.
Perhaps at no time has Beijing felt more frustrated in its aim to reclaim the island.
The fact is the wide gulf between the political realities in the mainland and Taiwan cannot be easily bridged.
The Communist Party rules the mainland with an iron grip but the Taiwanese hold the fate of their politicians in their hands.
Taiwan is a thriving, raucous democracy. Taiwanese can decide who runs the government.
The KMT’s mainland policies have been good for Taiwan’s economy but the benefits have not trickled down to the masses.
Instead, the KMT is being accused of doing whatever it takes to fend off the DPP including aligning with the communists in the mainland.
That’s not saying anything about persistent claims of collusion between the KMT and the business elite.
Tsai’s popularity rating has risen to 46 percent from 41 percent after the Xi-Ma meeting.
Meanwhile, the KMT is trying to build on the meeting as a watershed in its political agenda.
Expect the party to pitch it to voters as a defining moment in their search for a game changer.
This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on Nov. 10.
Translation by Frank Chen
[Chinese version 中文版]
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