News Analysis

Taiwan President Ma defends historic summit with China

Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou speaks during a presidential news conference at the presidential office in Taipei.
Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou speaks during a presidential news conference at the presidential office in Taipei.PHOTO: EPA

Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou has defended his history-making summit with Chinese President Xi Jinping in Singapore on Saturday as for the good of the next generation of Taiwanese, but there is clearly a more immediate motive as well.

Mr Ma, speaking at a press conference on Thursday morning (Nov 5), said: "The summit is not for the next election, it is for the welfare of the next generation. I feel it is my duty to build a bridge for the two sides, so whoever is the next president can use it to cross the river."

However, with his Kuomintang's (KMT) chairman and presidential candidate Eric Chu badly trailing the opposition Democratic Progressive Party's (DPP) leader and candidate Tsai Ing-wen by 16.4 per cent to 47.1 per cent, it is easy to draw the conclusion that the meeting is also aimed at influencing the polls.

In particular, the move would surely win back deep blue supporters of the KMT who have been alienated by the last-minute switch last month of presidential candidates from the deeply pro-unification Hung Hsiu-chu to Mr Chu, a move meant to improve the party's chances in both the presidential and legislative elections on Jan 16.

Ms Hung's pro-unification platform of signing a peace treaty with China and reaching consensus on "one China" had proved unpopular with Taiwanese voters, many of whom are unhappy with Mr Ma's China-friendly policy which they believe has benefited big business but not ordinary Taiwanese. Her candidacy had thus begun to poison the campaigns of the party's legislative candidates.

However, the switch last month had done little to raise the prospects of KMT's candidates, in particular the presidential candidate, as the pro-unification People First Party's (PFP) James Soong threw his hat in the ring, a move likely to pull away deep blue supporters disappointed by KMT's move to ditch Ms Hung. Mr Soong's move, while not likely to win him the presidency, will improve the chances of his party's legislative candidates getting elected and his PFP playing the role of crucial minority in Parliament.

The KMT's biggest fear now is the pro-independence DPP winning two-thirds majority in the legislative elections which will allow it to revise the Constitution. This is also an outcome that Beijing will not want to see.

So if the landmark summit between Mr Ma and Mr Xi could mollify the KMT's angry supporters and bring them back to the fold, as well as win over moderate voters, it will help the party's election campaign.

Make no mistake, the KMT are under no illusion that the meeting can turn the tide sufficiently for them to win both presidential and legislative polls. But if they lose with dignity and with enough seats in the legislature to block any attempt to revise the Constitution, it would be helpful to keep stability in cross-strait ties and also prevent the party from splintering further. The PFP is one of a few splinter parties of the KMT.

Seen in this light, the surprise element in the late announcement of the summit should be no surprise at all. It gives the DPP little time to sway opinion in Taiwan against it, although it has lost no time in trying to do so.

But there is great risk in having the summit so close to the elections as it could turn voters already hostile towards China against the KMT. This was what happened in the 2000 elections where then Chinese Premier Zhu Rongji's remarks on the polls caused a backlash, leading to the surprise narrow win of the DPP's Chen Shui-bian and eight years of freeze in cross-strait ties.

Mr Xi will want to calibrate his remarks to sufficiently win over blue and middle-of-the-road voters over to the KMT without turning others against it. Likewise Mr Ma. The tough part of the act is ahead.

suinoi@sph.com.sg