Realm of possibility

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 11 November, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 11 November, 2009, 12:00am

Ever since Ma Ying-jeou became president of Taiwan last year, cross-strait relations have improved greatly. Inevitably, there has been speculation as to whether there may be a meeting between him and President Hu Jintao , who is also head of the Chinese Communist Party.

One problem, seemingly trivial but actually important, is how the two will address one another. Or, rather, how Hu will address Ma. Beijing considers Taiwan part of its territory and so refers to Ma only as the 'leader' of Taiwan, not as its president.

Thus, last November, when Chen Yunlin, director of the Association for Relations Across the Taiwan Strait - the most senior mainland official to visit Taipei in almost six decades - met Taiwan's leader, he refrained from using the term 'Mr President' and instead just said 'you'.

But, last month, Ma assumed the chairmanship of the Kuomintang, removing that obstacle since the two men can now meet as heads of political parties. Ma, in an interview with Reuters after he became chairman, was asked about a meeting with his mainland counterpart. He said he would not exclude the possibility of such a meeting one day. 'At the moment,' he said, 'we have our hands full with economic issues.'

The question of timing also relates to the terms of office of the two men. Ma is expected to run for a second term in 2012, but Hu's term as party leader ends in October of that year. So, speculation focused on 2012, either before or after Ma's re-election and before Hu steps down.

And, if the meeting seals a peace agreement, so the thinking goes, the two men would be a shoo-in for the Nobel Peace Prize.

But, in recent weeks, speculation has shifted from 2012 to 2011. That is because 2011 marks the 100th anniversary of the fall of China's last imperial dynasty, precipitated by the Wuhan Uprising on October 10, 1911, which led to the birth of the Republic of China. October 10 is marked by Taiwan, formally still known as the Republic of China, as National Day.

Last month, Ma announced the setting up of the Republic of China Centennial Preparatory Commission, chaired by Vice-President Vincent Siew Wan-chang, to co-ordinate the planning for a year-long series of celebrations, starting on January 1, 2011.

Since then, there have been reports of plans on the mainland for a major celebration to mark the 100th anniversary of the 1911 revolution. After all, Sun Yat-sen, founder of the Republic of China, is revered on the mainland as well, where he is honoured as the 'great precursor' of the revolution. The thinking now is that Beijing will invite the KMT as well as minor political parties in Taiwan to join the celebrations. And, to avoid embarrassing Taiwan, the festivities can be held not in Beijing but in Wuhan, where the uprising took place.

And if Ma, for some reason, considers it inappropriate for him to go to any city on the mainland, then there is an event later that year that might provide an occasion for a cross-strait summit. That event is the annual Asia-Pacific Economic Co-operation forum leaders meeting, which in 2011 will be hosted by the US. Because of China's objection, Taiwan has been relegated to sending an economic official to such meetings, instead of its president. Last year, however, for the first time, a major political figure, former vice-president Lien Chan, represented Taiwan's president at the Apec meeting in Peru. He will do it again this month in Singapore. So, if Beijing and Taipei are both willing, there is no reason why a meeting cannot be held in 2011 on neutral territory, namely the US.

All this, of course, presupposes that relations between the two sides of the strait continue to improve over the next two years. If so, a summit could be held after a breakthrough on a peace agreement or, alternatively, it could conceivably be used to provide the momentum for reaching one.

This is very much in the realm of speculation, of course, but such eventualities, which may seem unlikely at this point, may cross into the realm of the possible, if not the probable.

Frank Ching is a Hong Kong-based writer and commentator