The unanticipated Singapore meeting Nov.7th [Saturday] of People’s Republic Pres. and Communist Party Boss Xi Jinping and Republic of China [Taiwan] Pres. and Kuomintang Party leader Ma Ying-jeou is a bombshell in Chinese and East Asian affairs.
It is not only the first encounter of the two heads of rival Chinese states and movements since the defeat and retreat of Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek to Taiwan in 1949, but it is precedent shattering on a number of other counts.
The Beijing Communist regime has always insisted the Taiwan institutions have no validity, that they are in fact the presence of a rogue regional regime in rebellion against their own legitimate central government. Much of the world has not accepted that characterization – and with the stability and exceedingly successful economic model on the Island – has maintained various nonprotocol relationships with Taipeh.
The U.S. link, considered by both sides as essential to Taiwan’s continued success, was enshrined in the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act. America’s formal acceptance of the Beijing de facto control of the Mainland came after years of Washington refusing “to recognize” a Communist regime. Much of that new role – for example, its veto on the United Nations Security Council – had come from the Franklin D. Roosevelt Administrations insistence that Chiang’s China be accorded great power status after its long struggle as a victim of European colonialism and Japanese aggression. But the Act, by a recalcitrant Congress after Pres. Jimmy Carter switched sides, not only maintained an American relationship with the then Kuomintang regime but assured it of continuing military aid support to sustain its independence.
Beijing’s tacitly made a concession to the Taiwan Chinese – and the U.S. – by an offer for reunification under the slogan “one country, two regimes”. But Beijing until now has always refused the protocol concession of treating the Taiwan government as an equal negotiating partner. And, indeed, the forthcoming meeting is being carefully circumscribed by referring to Ma only as Taiwan’s “leader” and describing the summit as a “pragmatic arrangement”.
Hwoever, this abrupt break by Beijing with what was considered an sacrosanct policy is explained by Xi’s growing personalized power structure in Beijing. First and foremost, as a former Communist leader in the coastal regions on the Mainland facing Taiwan, he considers himself an expert on Taiwan politics. That, coupled with his own hard-charging personal takeover of the Communist Party as no leader since Mao Tse-tung in the 1950s, emboldens him to take what other Communist officials would not have dared. By offering some measure of conciliation – although little of substance is likely to come of this particular meeting – he hopes to strengthen Beijing’s current pitch as a responsible member of the world’s family of nations.
A more important explanation is that Xi is lending his support to Ma’s Kuomintang Party, which according to all the polls, has collapsed in anticipation of January elections. The opposition Democratic Progressive Party, with a long history of putting distance between Taiwan and the Mainland, even suggesting formal independence, is now headed for a landslide. Whether, in fact, Xi’s gesture may not backfire is the subject of current debate in Taiwan where the growing unpopularity of the Kuomintang is linked to Ma’s ambitious series of economic and political agreements with the Mainland.
Student groups and other political activitists have been increasingly critical of Ma’s moves. The growing friction between local interests in Hong Kong and Beijing has also influenced public opinion in Taiwan. The same “one country, two regimes” was used to smooth the 1997return of the former British Colony to China. But recent encroachments on local government and, ironically, former British freedom of speech and equality before the law, have been noted in Taiwan.
Only time will tell if Xi has overplayed his hand. But it is certain that this new nuanced play of Chinese forces increases the importance of the U.S.’ own China policy, with Taiwan’s critical strategic geography again a growing factor in aggressive Beijing moves in both the East China and the South China Seas.