China and Taiwan shake on it: 5 takeaways from the Xi-Ma meeting

Chinese President Xi Jingping (right) and Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou shaking hands at the Shangri-La Hotel in Singapore on Nov 7, 2015.
Chinese President Xi Jingping (right) and Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou shaking hands at the Shangri-La Hotel in Singapore on Nov 7, 2015. ST PHOTO: NEO XIAOBIN

SINGAPORE (Bloomberg) - There it was, on stage in Singapore for all the world to see: China's and Taiwan's top leaders, shaking hands for the first time. It was a living demonstration of the "one China" principle that has unpinned reconciliation across the Taiwan Strait since 1992.

The concept - that mainland China and Taiwan are part of the same country, even though they've been governed separately for 66 years - ran through the remarks of both Chinese President Xi Jinping and Taiwan President Ma Ying-jeou during their meeting on Saturday (Nov 7). Mr Ma spoke of the hopes of "the Chinese nation."

Mr Xi told Mr Ma that "no power can separate us" and emphasised behind closed doors that such talks must not be considered "state-to-state" affairs.

The proclamations of national unity by two sides still technically at war raise the stakes for cross-strait talks going forward. In little more than two months, Taiwanese voters will choose a new president to manage the island's mainland ties. The current front-runner, opposition leader Tsai Ing-wen, has declined to endorse the "one China" principle and the related "1992 consensus" saying only she will preserve the status quo.

Here's what we learnt from the meeting between Mr Xi and Mr Ma:

1. Pressure's on Tsai

The exchange increased pressure on Ms Tsai to say if she would accept the "one China" principle in her race against Mr Eric Chu of Mr Ma's Kuomintang (KMT).

"It provided a clear and pragmatic explanation to the somewhat ambiguous 1992 consensus," said Mr Liu Guoshen, director of Xiamen University's Taiwan Research Institute.

"For Beijing, the essence is that cross-strait relations are not 'state to state'. It forces the future leaders in Taiwan to face up to this unavoidable question." 

Mr Xi also told Mr Ma that Taiwan's independence - an idea supported by Ms Tsai's Democratic Progressive Party - was the biggest threat to peace.

2. Ma Mum on Democracy

While Mr Ma solidified the legacy of closer ties with China that he forged during his eight years as president, he chose not to use the occasion to assert the importance of democracy or the existence of government founded in 1912 and preserved in Taiwan.

When faced with Mr Xi across the table, Mr Ma "paid homage to the guy", said Mr William Stanton, a former United States diplomat and director of the Centre for Asia Policy at the National Tsing Hua University in Taiwan.

"He didn't talk about freedom, democracy, human rights, even though those are the things he used to talk about."

3. Xi Outshines Ma

With all of Asia watching, Mr Xi dispensed with the diplomat-speak and showed his flair for metaphor.

"We are brothers connected by flesh, even if our bones are broken," Mr Xi told Mr Ma, in an appeal for China's reunification. "We are a family whose blood is thicker than water."

Mr Ma was more prosaic, citing trade figures and promoting hotlines.

Mr Xi's "speech was made from such a height, and was rich in history and had both depth and breadth", said Dr Zhang Linzheng, professor of political science at National Taiwan University. "Ma, by contrast, was cautious, mincing his words and watching his step."

4. Protocol Disasters Averted

All the focus on protocol paid off. Calling each other "mister" instead of president, stowing the national flags and splitting the bill ensured neither side conferred legitimacy on the other.

The end result still elevates Taiwan's status, said Mr Zhang Baohui, director of the Center for Asian Pacific Studies at Lingnan University in Hong Kong. Mr Ma "can tell the Taiwanese people that 'I achieved political equality and on the basis of mutual respect' and that is a victory for Taiwan", he said.

5. Political Deal Far Off

A handshake is just a handshake. With Mr Ma leaving office and his party trailing in the polls, the Communist Party remains a long, long way from coaxing Taiwan into political talks.

"The time is not ripe for Beijing to 'close the deal' on Taiwan unification," said Dr Andrew Nathan,  a professor of political science at Columbia University. "So they have to wait, refrain from triggering a crisis, and hope for an improvement in China's image among the Taiwan voters."