China-Taiwan: The Presidents Meet
I contributed the following piece to Nikkei Asian Review. The original is here.
Xi and Ma must look beyond nationalism
When the Chinese and Taiwanese presidents meet in Singapore on Saturday, the first such meeting since the 1949 Communist revolution, it will be a battle between nationalism and pragmatism.
The historic summit comes at a tricky time. Taiwanese leader Ma Ying-jeou is close to being a lame duck; he leaves office in May and his party is expected to lose the January election for his successor.
The timing of the summit is unlikely a coincidence. Probably only an outgoing Taiwanese president could politically afford to lay the groundwork for such a symbolic and sensitive meeting. And only a Chinese president like Xi Jinping, who has proven his willingness to take a stand in the South China Sea, could do the same.
The first test will be what to call the protagonists. Xinhua, the official Chinese news agency, described the meeting as one between the “leaders of the two sides” of the Taiwan Strait, a somewhat ambiguous expression that still grants a legitimacy to Ma that China has been loath to give the island ever since the Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalist government fled there in defeat.
The second issue is what will actually transpire. We are unlikely to learn much officially, as the two sides will sign no agreements and issue no joint statements. However, this should not detract from the importance of the meeting.
Ma’s closer ties with China have become increasingly unpopular at home, even though history, location and economics argue for them. How the meeting with Xi will impact January’s vote depends on what leaks out. If the result sufficiently respects Taiwan’s growing distinct identity, it could help Ma’s Nationalist party. But if it underscores fears that China rejects that identity, it will be a boost for the opposition.
Wrestling, of sorts
The key issue will be to wrestle the emotions of nationalism into the logic of pragmatism.
Beijing’s long-held and deeply felt stance that Taiwan is an inalienable part of China that will inevitably be reunified with the mainland runs counter to equally strong feelings of “Taiwaneseness” on the island that have grown over the years.
Today’s adults on Taiwan were born and raised there. They know China only as tourists and businesspeople, and the idea of closer ties with the mainland makes them deeply suspicious if not actively antagonistic.
For the adults on the mainland, particularly those running the Communist Party, the government and the military, the nationalistic belief that Taiwan is as Chinese as Hong Kong, Xinjiang and Tibet — let alone Guangdong and Shanghai — would be one that is unthinkable to discard.
Maintaining the status quo is not an option, though. The atmosphere is changing too quickly. The results of Taiwan’s presidential election will affect the island’s relationship with Beijing. China’s new foreign policy challenges Taiwan’s place in global trade and financial flows. The fact that the two leaders will meet shows a recognition that some new way needs to be forged.
Xi’s leadership has been characterized by a more muscular and robust foreign policy stance than that of his predecessors. His “One Belt, One Road,” or “new Silk Road,” initiative is increasing China’s influence throughout Central, South and Southeast Asia. Xi’s firm handling of China’s territorial claims to areas and islands in the South China Sea not only has challenged the U.S., but brings Taiwan, which also has historic claims in the area, into play.
In the financial arena, China under Xi founded the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank — taking a leadership role that has challenged Washington — and then promptly rejected Taiwan’s application to be a founding member in a dispute over the name it would use. Setting up a compromise on this issue could be a significant sign that pragmatists on both sides of the Taiwan Strait had scored a victory.
The other island
The issue of Hong Kong will loom over the talks as well.
When China regained sovereignty over the former British colony in 1997, the “one country, two systems” formula was supposed to be an elegant way of not only calming fears among Hong Kongers about being ruled by Beijing but also showing Taiwan a model that one day could be used to bring it into the fold.
Wrangling over the direct popular election of Hong Kong’s chief executive, however, spilled over into a massive street demonstration and civil disobedience movement last year. The protests shocked China, hardened Beijing’s stance on election reform and strengthened anti-China views in Taiwan as well.
The key absent actor in this play is the U.S. With the looming U.S. presidential election, China trade and negotiations with China’s leaders have attracted considerable noise from the rival campaigns.
Washington has made a symbolic challenge to Beijing’s claims in the South China Sea by sailing a destroyer within 12 nautical miles of an artificial island built by China. But Taiwan, once was a key issue in U.S. foreign policy, has faded as a topic.
The central symbol of Xi’s presidency has been the “Chinese dream,” which he described as “the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation.” Fitting Taiwan into that dream is undoubtedly a top priority for him. Doing that in a way that respects how the island has developed and matured independently and separately since 1949 will require realism and sensitivity.
Compared with China’s 1.35 billion people, Taiwan’s 23 million are hardly even a rounding error. However, in the past 66 years those 23 million people have moved from one-party authoritarian rule to a robust and raucous democracy; they have moved from poverty solidly into the middle class; they have moved from viewing themselves as exiles from China to a complex nationalism of Taiwaneseness.
These are achievements that cannot just be dismissed; they need to be acknowledged and dealt with respectfully and pragmatically.
David Schlesinger is managing director of Tripod Advisors, which advises companies on Chinese political risk, media and technology issues. He was previously the chairman of Thomson Reuters China and editor-in-chief of Reuters News as well as the agency’s bureau chief in Taipei and Beijing.