While it may not match the geopolitical significance of Nixon’s visit to China, the meeting between China’s President Xi Jinping and Taiwan’s President Ma Ying-jeou is noteworthy. Held in Singapore on 7 November, it was the first meeting between the leaders of China and Taiwan since Chiang Kai-shek’s nationalists abandoned the mainland and retreated to Taiwan in 1949. Today the mainland People’s Republic of China (PRC) considers Taiwan to be a rogue province and has reserved the right to compel unification by force if the island issues a formal declaration of independence. Given the long history of enmity between the two sides, during which both have claimed the mantle of the ‘true’ China, why have their leaders finally met?
It seems probable that this recent meeting was prompted by the forthcoming Taiwanese elections, to be held in January 2016.
President Ma’s party, the Kuomintang (KMT), suffered a heavy defeat in the 2014 local elections. Domestic factors played a role, but so too did the perception among the Taiwanese electorate that he was moving the island too close to China. The KMT has continued to fare poorly in polls and has recently dumped its presidential candidate, Hung Hsiu-chu, replacing her with Eric Chu, the party’s chairman. This has failed, however, to turn around the party’s fortunes. The opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) is widely considered the favourite and is expected to capture the presidency. The DPP is perceived to favour independence, but its presidential candidate, Tsai Ing-wen, has promised to maintain the status quo.
Which side proposed the meeting remains unconfirmed. However, given that Beijing is more powerful, fears that a DPP victory will make unification less likely and has previously rejected the prospect of such a get-together, it seems likely that this recent meeting was a PRC initiative. The meeting can therefore be interpreted as a Chinese attempt to buttress support for its favoured Taiwanese interlocutor by promoting the KMT as the party best able to manage the island’s relationship with the People’s Republic. However, history suggests that any overt Chinese attempts to influence the calculations of the Taiwanese electorate are unlikely to succeed.
Before elections in 1996, China conducted missile tests in a move some interpreted as an attempt to intimidate the Taiwanese electorate. Beijing, however, was deterred from further action by the rapid deployment of two US aircraft carrier battle groups, and Taiwanese voters elected Lee Teng-hui as president, to the chagrin of the PRC.
More recently, the KMT’s 2014 election defeat followed the rise of the ‘sunflower movement’, a student-led protest movement that occupied Taiwan’s parliament, the Legislative Yuan, to oppose the Cross-Strait Services Trade Agreement. For many, this trade agreement with China symbolised the increasingly close relationship between Taipei and Beijing advocated by Ma.
Further complicating the ties between the two polities, Taiwan’s citizens increasingly identify as Taiwanese, not Chinese. Despite the improvement in government-to-government ties that has taken place during Ma’s presidency, Taiwan’s population evinces little support for unification with the PRC. Moreover, the response of the Chinese state to the Hong Kong pro-democracy protests of 2014 were a reminder of what life might be like under the ‘one country, two systems’ model proposed for Taiwan by the PRC.
In conclusion, that the meeting took place at all hints at China’s frustration with its inability to achieve its goal of unification. Neither threats nor economic incentives have worked. This raises the question of how long China will remain patient with the status quo. As China’s rapid military modernisation continues, the willingness of the United States to defend Taiwan—an ambiguous commitment at best—will face increasing scrutiny. If Taiwan continues to show little interest in unifying with the PRC, China may one day decide to resolve the issue by force, gambling that America will not risk a major war for the sake of Taiwan.
From an Australian perspective, the meeting is a positive step. Anything that increases stability across the Taiwan Strait is in the national interest because it reduces the likelihood of a military conflict in North Asia. Though Australia recognises Beijing as the sole seat of the Chinese Government, and a previous Australian Foreign Minister has noted that Australia is not treaty-bound to assist an American effort to defend Taiwan, Canberra would not welcome a crisis that forced it to choose between its primary ally and key economic partner.