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
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.
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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 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.