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Xi Jinping and Ma Ying-jeou summit

The strategic intentions behind Xi Jinping's meeting with Ma Ying-jeou

Jonathan Sullivan says Xi's symbolic meeting with Ma is Beijing's way of trying to pre-emptively constrain the Democratic Progressive Party ahead of its likely victory in presidential and legislative elections

PUBLISHED : Friday, 06 November, 2015, 5:08pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 07 November, 2015, 5:21pm

When Xi Jinping and Ma Ying-jeou shake hands on Saturday in Singapore, it will be the first time in history that sitting presidents from the People's Republic of China and the Republic of China will have met each other face to face, even if they will not address each other as such. The symbolism is rich, particularly on the PRC side, where the image of a Taiwan returning to the fold is more powerful than scenes of Xi rubbing shoulders with US President Barack Obama or being received in state by the queen in Britain. The meeting is obviously a coup for Ma, a man driven by a keen sense of the Chinese nation and his personal role in its preservation. It is also great news for Beijing to serve up at home, with the Global Times pronouncing that "the Taiwan problem is no longer a problem".

Beyond the warm and fuzzy state media coverage, the timing of the meeting reveals a lot about the intentions behind it. We are just two months away from elections in Taiwan that will almost certainly see the Democratic Progressive Party win the presidency and a legislative majority for the first time. For Beijing, which suspects DPP president Tsai Ing-wen's "true intentions" and her capacity to keep the "secessionist tendencies" of her party's factions in check, it is an unnerving prospect.

The last time the DPP controlled the presidency, despite facing an obstructive Kuomintang/People First Party majority in parliament, Chen Shui-bian was able to widely cement the idea of Taiwan's distinctness and separation from the rest of China. Now, after eight years under a president who is unusually well disposed to the mainland and, in his first term at least, powerful enough to push through significant moves towards economic integration, the trends in Taiwanese public opinion are unpropitious for advocates of closer ties. Decades-long opinion polls show the Taiwanese have never been surer about their identity, and identification with Taiwan is unequivocal among the young. At this point, Beijing has decided to intervene.

The mainland will frame the Xi-Ma meeting as the embodiment of the 'status quo': friendly relations, dialogue and partnership, progress moving towards unification

In the short term, the prospect of Beijing's intervention rescuing the KMT, which has for months been sleepwalking towards catastrophic electoral defeat, is slim. Although the KMT recently acted to remove its duly elected presidential nominee, the unificationist Hung Hsiu-chu, the machinations needed to replace her with chairman Eric Chu appear to have been a wasted effort. Tarnished by his ties to Ma and the protracted drama over his decision to run, Chu's poll numbers are little better than Hung's. Building on historic gains in last November's local elections, the national campaigns have thus far been plain sailing for the DPP. Tsai has staked out popular positions on China and the economy, and gave an accomplished performance on her trip to the US. She currently enjoys a double-digit lead. Given that Ma's unpopularity is mainly a product of a rush to embrace China, combined with his opaque decision-making - the sunflower movement was first and foremost about transparency in politics - it is difficult to see how a clandestinely arranged surprise meeting with the Chinese president will help the KMT at the polls.

READ MORE: Historic meet between Xi Jinping and Ma Ying-jeou on Saturday serves as blueprint for China and Taiwan's future ties

However, taking a broader geographical and longer-term view, the meeting serves multiple ends for both parties. Ma gets his long-cherished milestone and may be able to convert it into continuing relevance after he steps down. Much more significantly, for the Communist Party, the meeting will serve to circumscribe what the DPP can do by enhancing and solidifying "international society's" perception of what the status quo in cross-strait relations is. Given that it is difficult to read a newspaper report about Taiwan without seeing the words "renegade province" or "province of China", one could say that the framing war has already been won. But the mainland will frame the Xi-Ma meeting as the embodiment of the "status quo": friendly relations, dialogue and partnership, progress moving towards unification. The reality is nothing of the sort, but that matters less than the image and the narrative that will be constructed around it. The presentation of an "enhanced status quo" complicates Tsai's position, during the campaign but more importantly after her likely victory. Constraining the DPP, pre-emptively circumscribing its room for manoeuvre and limiting the "damage" that a DPP administration could do to the unification project is the aim of this meeting. 

The losers in all this, surprise surprise, are the Taiwanese people. Yet, contrary to the reaction of their hyperactive politicised media, Taiwanese society appears fairly relaxed about it. Indeed, Taiwanese have reacted with remarkable equanimity considering what is, to many, the galling spectacle of a reviled leader pursuing his personal goals against the wishes of the majority, and witnessing an outside power conspire to influence the outcome of hard-won democratic processes. The "maturity" of this response is a resounding rebuttal to Chinese, and some of the KMT elite, who complain that Taiwan's democracy is undermined by the emotional and immature nature of the people. Despite the exigencies of political competition and the heightened sense of drama that accompanies Taiwan's hard-fought elections, there is actually a high degree of consensus on Taiwan's status - functional autonomy within the framework of the ROC with future endpoints still to be decided.

The majority of Taiwanese identify themselves as Taiwanese, identify with the Taiwanese form of democracy, enjoy the freedoms of Taiwanese society and distinguish very clearly between Taiwan and the PRC. Taiwanese are angry but they also have sufficient confidence in the robustness of their democracy to let their votes do the talking. They know that, come January 16, their opportunity will come to pronounce on Ma and the KMT's eight-year tenure. The worry is that the right to sanction the KMT will be a pyrrhic victory if Taiwan's future has already been influenced by something as decidedly undemocratic as an ad hoc meeting between Mr Xi and Mr Ma.

Jonathan Sullivan is associate professor of contemporary Chinese studies at the University of Nottingham