Xi-Ma summit sends pointed message that cross-strait relations are now too strong to roll back
David Shambaugh says the Xi-Ma meeting, itself a display of bold statesmanship, caps a steady decline in cross-strait tension in recent years
The historic meeting between the leaders of China and Taiwan - Xi Jinping (習近平) and Ma Ying-jeou – on November 7 in Singapore was filled with rich symbolism reflecting the long distance travelled by the two rival regimes since 1949. It was the first time that the leaders had met in 66 years of separation, following the Republic of China’s retreat to Taiwan and the establishment of the People’s Republic of China on the mainland.
This extraordinary event is to be enthusiastically welcomed by the people of China and Taiwan, as well as the whole world. There is no downside to the meeting, unless one subscribes (as some in Taiwan do) to the delusion and illusion that Taiwan is an independent sovereign state. Much of the post-summit narrative and press coverage has emphasised the tactical expediency and linguistic obfuscation by both sides, but we should recognise the bold initiative for what it was: bold statesmanship. It is worthy of the Nobel Peace Prize.
We do not, of course, know the precise future impact that the meeting will have on cross-strait relations, but it should be viewed as a capstone of all the remarkable progress achieved under Ma’s presidency and the parallel efforts made by China’s leaders Xi and Hu Jintao (胡錦濤). It is, in fact, probably the greatest achievement of Hu’s legacy. It should also be seen as an effort to consolidate the gains made over the past seven years, as well as to put in place a framework for further development following Taiwan’s elections in January. Whoever is elected Taiwan’s leader – and in all likelihood it will be the Democratic Progressive Party candidate Tsai Ing-wen – the meeting makes it much more difficult to roll back the bridges built across the Taiwan Strait. The thick cross-strait linkages are now a reality that all of Taiwan’s politicians and citizens must live with. The question is: do they wish to push them further forward?
The two sides have travelled a tortuous course to get to this point. For Taiwan, this has included five military crises and a state of high military tension for decades (it still lives under intimidating military threat from the mainland). It included major political crises for Taipei when the Republic of China was expelled from the United Nations in 1971 and the US severed diplomatic relations and its bilateral security treaty in 1979. But the island has largely overcome these challenges by building strong substantive ties absent diplomatic relations with most nations in the world (22 states still diplomatically recognise the Taipei government). Such challenges included strenuous efforts by China to isolate Taiwan internationally and pressure it into submission. Taiwan’s government and people deserve much credit for enduring this pressure and these crises while building a modern economy, robust democracy and vibrant civil society.
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Despite these accomplishments, the 23 million people on Taiwan continue to have a very mixed identity and ambivalent feelings about their relationship with the mainland. While a substantial majority endorses the “status quo” in cross-strait relations, there also exists the widespread sense that Taiwan has fallen too far under the influence of the mainland and is losing its de facto autonomy. This growing sense of dependency has fuelled the popular “Sunflower Movement” and underlies support for the DPP. China’s government in Beijing is acutely aware of, and worried about, this growing sentiment on the island – which is one reason that Xi decided to meet Ma at this time in advance of January’s elections.
To be certain, China-Taiwan relations have grown remarkably quickly and deeply in recent years. The two sides have signed 23 cooperation agreements – including in post and telecommunications, trade in services, cultural and educational exchanges, water sharing, tourism, investment, civil aviation, dual taxation, judicial matters, a landmark Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement for trade, and other bilateral areas. These agreements have facilitated dramatic growth in cross-strait interactions since 2008.
More than two million Taiwanese now live and work on the mainland. A reported 120 flights carry 6,000 people across the strait every day. Intermarriages are on the rise. Tourism is booming, with a record four million mainlanders visiting the island in 2014. Taiwan’s Tourism Bureau recently raised the cap for mainland visitors from 4,000 to 5,000 per day. Meanwhile, China’s government reports 5.37 million visits from Taiwan residents last year. The number of mainland students studying in Taiwan has also exploded in number – totalling 33,000 today.
Yet it is precisely this rising wave of mainlanders, plus the growing economic dependence, that is giving pause to many on Taiwan. Various public opinion polls on the island show rising discomfort with cross-strait relations and increasing support for independence. This is fuelled by many factors – history, identity, politics, ethnicity, geography – but clearly economics is now among the most important. Fully 40 per cent of the island’s trade is now with the mainland. Trade last year exceeded US$198 billion, according to mainland statistics. Despite this, Taiwan’s economy has been contracting in recent years.
The “scissors effect” of trade dependence and a slowing economy has many on Taiwan worried about the future. At present, Taiwan’s economy would rank only fifth among China’s provinces and regions – trailing behind Guangdong, Jiangsu (江蘇), Shandong (山東), Zhejiang (浙江) and Henan (河南). But if Taiwan’s economy continues to grow at the current rate of 3.5 per cent, or less, many on Taiwan fear the mainland will try to leverage the economic dependency for political ends. It is thus imperative that Taiwan try to diversify its trade partners in future years. This is, however, easier said than done.
The Xi-Ma meeting took place against the backdrop. It also was facilitated by the two sides continuing to agree to what they call the “1992 consensus” of “one China, respective interpretations”. Ma’s administration has gone further when he declared at the outset of his term the three principles of “no unification, no independence, and no use of force”.
But Tsai and her DPP have never accepted the validity of this consensus that was reached after negotiations in Singapore in 1992. If elected, Tsai has said her mainland policy would be based on three factors: the “existing ROC constitutional order, the status quo, and the accumulated outcomes of the past more than 20 years” (in some speeches she substitutes “the people’s will” for the “status quo”). In a closely watched visit to Washington in June, she sought to assuage American concerns about her intentions and potential policies. She did mollify American concerns that she was not a reincarnation of Chen Shui-bian, but her intentional cross-strait policy and language of “strategic ambiguity” leaves many remaining questions in the US about what she might do if she wins the presidency.
This was another key reason for the Xi-Ma meeting – to box Tsai in, lock in the existing agreements, and give her a fait accompli that she would inherit upon taking office. Indeed, Tsai’s public statements seem to indicate she realises that the cross-strait relationship has progressed so far that it is difficult and inadvisable to try and roll it back. She seems to wish to recalibrate it and particularly to ensure the making of Taiwan’s mainland policy is more inclusive and transparent. Tsai was very critical publicly of the secret preparations that led to the surprise announcement about the summit in Singapore. She also issued a post-meeting statement lambasting Ma : “We had hoped that President Ma would speak about Taiwan’s democracy, freedom, and the existence of the Republic of China. More importantly, that he would mention the freedom of the Taiwanese people to make their own choices. However, none of these were mentioned.” In fact, Ma did this obliquely by informing Xi that: “Both sides should respect each other’s values and way of life.” Moreover, upon his return to Taiwan, he publicly released the full text of his statements to Xi.
READ MORE: Did Ma Ying-jeou stand up for Taiwan in closed-door summit with Xi Jinping? Full transcript of Ma’s remarks has the answers
One issue Ma did raise with Xi was that of the short-range ballistic missiles China has deployed opposite Taiwan (for some reason, he only mentioned missiles at the Zhurihe base rather than the total number of more than 1,300), asking Xi to “take some friendly, concrete measures” concerning the deployment. After the meeting, Ma indicated that he was “not very satisfied” with Xi’s response, according to Taiwan’s China News Service. Elsewhere, it was reported that Xi responded that “not all” of the missiles were aimed at Taiwan.
Finally, it must be noted that the US government fully and officially welcomed last weekend’s momentous meeting (although it received very short notice). For the first time since 1949, the past seven years of cross-strait stabilisation and reduction of tensions has removed the Taiwan issue from the heart of the US-China relationship. To be certain, Beijing and Washington have many other difficulties, but in recent years Taiwan has generally not been one of them. The steadfast and quiet support that Taiwan has received from the US, before and since 1979 and Washington’s adherence to the “one China” policy, were also important background factors that facilitated the historic Xi-Ma meeting.
David Shambaugh is professor and director of the China Policy Programme at George Washington University, and a non-resident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington, DC