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News analysis

KMT hoping for boost with Xi-Ma meeting

It is 'shaking things up' as its candidate for Taiwan's presidential election is trailing

The top goal of the historic meeting between Chinese President Xi Jinping and Taiwan President Ma Ying-jeou is to improve the chances of the ruling Kuomintang (KMT) at the Taiwanese presidential election next January, say analysts.

Taipei-based analyst J. Michael Cole believes the KMT sees the need to "shake things up a bit" as it enters the last leg of the election campaign with a substantial handicap against the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP).

"So there is a willingness on the KMT's part to take a risk - and this is a risk - as it breaks a promise by Ma in 2011 that he would not meet a Chinese president while in office unless there was a necessity and public support for such a meeting to occur," said Mr Cole, a senior non-resident fellow with the Nottingham University's China Policy Institute.

The Xi-Ma meeting is the first between presidents of both sides since the Chinese civil war ended in 1949. It is viewed by some as a step higher than the 2005 meeting between Mr Hu Jintao and Mr Lien Chan in their positions as chiefs of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and the KMT respectively.

The KMT's last-minute switch of presidential candidate on Oct 17 from Ms Hung Hsiu-chu to party chairman Eric Chu has not improved its chances at the January polls, with Mr Chu's ratings trailing those of DPP leader and candidate Tsai Ing-wen in opinion surveys.

To boost KMT's chances, cross-strait expert Chu Jingtao of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences believes Mr Xi may promise more room for Taiwan in the global arena to counter the long-running grumbles among Taiwanese over the island's limited involvement in multilateral initiatives.

Asked if the meeting may have come too late, Dr Chu said: "It's hard to predict the election outcome. The Taiwanese people, and also the Americans, know that an unstable cross-strait situation is not good for anyone."

But some observers believe the CCP is already preparing for the event of a DPP win by trying to protect the progress in cross-strait cooperation since the Beijing-friendly KMT took power in 2008.

A DPP rule is seen as a threat to the cross-strait situation, given the perception that Ms Tsai, as a minister in the DPP government, was involved in crafting a policy towards formal independence.

Cross-strait expert Wu Nengyuan from the Fujian Academy of Social Sciences said Mr Xi wants to send a message to all political parties in Taiwan that the key to maintaining cross-strait peaceful development is the 1992 consensus of "one China, different interpretations" which opposes Taiwan independence. "Without this political cornerstone, cross-strait relations could go down the wrong path," he said.

Observers also believe Mr Ma is trying to salvage his legacy by agreeing to the meeting, though one obstacle reportedly was his request to be recognised as Taiwan President.

"Perhaps he wants to show he has promoted peace so that he can try to get a Nobel Peace Prize," said political analyst Shih Cheng-feng from the National Dong Hwa University in Taiwan.

But the Xi-Ma meeting is a political gamble that can undo progress in cross-strait relations, say observers, saying it depends on what both leaders say and do at their meeting.

"If the meeting is seen as an attempt by Beijing to directly influence Taiwan's democratic processes, this could backfire and end up hurting not only the CCP but the KMT as well," said Mr Cole.

Mr Gerrit van der Wees, a senior adviser to the Formosan Association for Public Affairs, a Washington-based advocacy group of Taiwanese Americans who support independence for Taiwan, said the group believes a meeting between the leaders should only be held after Taiwan has reached a broad consensus on future cross-strait relations.

"We have a hunch that in Taiwan itself, this (meeting) will backfire pretty seriously, and people will feel he is yet again going behind their backs instead of having a transparent and open debate on the issues," he told The Straits Times.

But Chinese observers believe the meeting would result in a net positive impact on cross-strait ties.

Dr Chu said the Xi-Ma meeting would encourage more high-level exchanges between the two sides. Leaders of both sides could meet in China or Taiwan and there could also be meetings at lower levels such as between premiers, vice-premiers or parliamentary chiefs.

"There may not be any agreements or joint statement, but this meeting will be a historic breakthrough... The longer the top leaders don't meet, the longer the problems will snowball," he said.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 05, 2015, with the headline 'KMT hoping for boost with Xi-Ma meeting'. Print Edition | Subscribe