Xi Jinping and Ma Ying-jeou summit

Summit between Xi Jinping and Ma Ying-jeou has set in stone a new dimension to cross-strait ties

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 10 November, 2015, 1:10am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 10 November, 2015, 1:10am

The historic meeting between the two leaders across the Taiwan Strait on neutral ground in Singapore at the weekend may have been more about symbolism than the substance of reconciliation.

But there is no symbolism without underlying substance. Sometimes it takes the rituals of symbolism to point the way forward.

WATCH: One of the longest handshakes you've probably seen, as Xi and Ma remain in one another's grip for over a minute 

The significance in this respect of the hour-long meeting between President Xi Jinping and President Ma Ying-jeou is twofold.

The first is political - the reaffirmation of the one-China principle enshrined in the 1992 consensus, under a new "status quo" that allows leaders on both sides to talk on an equal footing; and agreement to set up a ministerial-level communications hotline to defuse conflict and tension between the two sides.

The second is timing, with Ma to leave office soon because of a constitutional term limit and the Kuomintang, which favours closer ties with the mainland, facing likely defeat by the independence-leaning Democratic Progressive Party in the presidential election in January, and a close contest for control of the legislature, which is a check on executive power.

The one-China consensus originated with an understanding between semi-official channels in 1992 under which each side agreed to have its own interpretation of it. Analysts agree that Saturday's summit not only set a precedent for top-level official talks but bound the future ruling party and leader of Taiwan to accept the one-China principle.

It may be years before the true significance of the meeting emerges, but it remains cause for rejoicing by Chinese everywhere to see the two leaders shake hands and set a precedent. For people well versed in contemporary history, this is very significant, given decades of cross-strait hostility.

Interestingly, the principle of equal footing was much in evidence during the summit, right down to seating arrangements for the official dinner. This may seem insignificant, but is aimed at making Taiwanese officials feel more comfortable with the prospect of future top-level exchanges, which will be good for peace and stability.

Hotlines between international adversaries may be the rule rather than the exception, but the decision to set one up at ministerial level across the strait is politically foresighted in that it is almost certainly there forever, regardless of the political climate. If, as expected, the DPP's Dr Tsai Ing-wen becomes the next president, she could hardly risk cutting it off.