What the Xi-Ma summit suggests for Taiwan and the region

The governments on both sides of the Taiwan Strait may have denied it but the Xi-Ma summit was in part about the presidential and legislative elections in Taiwan early next year.

Neither Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou nor Chinese President Xi Jinping expect their history- making meeting in Singapore last Saturday to overturn the fortunes of Mr Ma's Kuomintang (KMT), which is expected to lose both the presidency and its majority in the legislature to the independence- leaning Democratic Progressive Party (DPP).

The gap between them in the presidential race is just too wide, with polls showing KMT chairman and presidential candidate Eric Chu trailing DPP chief and candidate Tsai Ing-wen by between 11 and 27 percentage points. As for the legislative elections, DPP stalwart Frank Hsieh expects that only in a few seats, where the candidates are neck-and-neck, might the KMT turn the tables on the DPP, too few for the ruling party to defeat the DPP overall.


Reports on the historic meeting between Chinese President Xi Jinping and Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou in Singapore last Saturday dominated Taiwanese newspapers' front pages. Some analysts have said that the summit's effect could be quicker integration between the two sides, including political integration. PHOTO: EUROPEAN PRESSPHOTO AGENCY

What the KMT can hope for is a closing of the gap so that it will lose less badly in the polls, allowing it to play the role of a strong opposition party, analysts have said.

However, with a poll by the United Daily News showing that 37.1 per cent of Taiwanese were satisfied with Mr Ma's performance at the summit against 33.8 per cent who were dissatisfied, the impact on the Jan 16 elections might be small.

Instead, Beijing in initiating this top leaders' summit last month - having rebuffed Mr Ma's attempts to set up one last year - is likely looking beyond the elections to the return of the DPP to government after a hiatus of eight years.

QUICKER INTEGRATION

In the past 71/2 years, cross-strait ties have burgeoned under the rule of the China-friendly Mr Ma, with the signing of the Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement in 2010, Chinese tourists flooding into Taiwan and Chinese students allowed to study at Taiwanese universities and the start of regular direct flights.

China wants to prevent a reversal of the gains in cross-strait ties. More than that, it wants to ensure that the DPP will not push Taiwan towards independence once it takes power.

Hence, Mr Xi at his one-hour meeting with Mr Ma said the biggest threat to peaceful development of relations was "pro-independence forces". He also stressed the 1992 consensus - that the two sides belong to one China - as the basis for cross-strait relations.

Ms Tsai and her DPP - the elephant in the meeting room - do not recognise the 1992 consensus. Instead, Ms Tsai has said that she supports the status quo - which she defines as a democratic Taiwan and peaceful and stable development of cross-strait ties.

Post-summit, the DPP's Chinese affairs director Chao Tien-lin told Taiwan media there was no need to adjust Ms Tsai's stand of maintaining the status quo. Indeed, there were those in the party who believed the ball would fall back into China's court if the DPP should win a majority of seats in Parliament.

Still, there were some in the party who believed that if Ms Tsai becomes president next year, she would face pressure on cross-strait issues, given that both Mr Xi and Mr Ma have upheld the 1992 consensus as the basis for ties.

In the longer term, however, the impact of the summit could be more profound, setting as it does a precedent for top-level leaders to meet. Said Beijing-based journalist Francesco Sisci, writing in the Asia Times news website: "If Xi meets Ma today, Xi can meet Ma's successor tomorrow. It will be harder for any future leader of the island to step out of the informal agreement that has been cast."

In her own response to the summit, Ms Tsai has said she would not rule out meeting Mr Xi if she became president, provided some conditions were met.

The effect of the institutionalisation of top-level summits could be that things could move a lot faster than before. Already, while this meeting was meant to be symbolic with no agreements signed, the two sides nevertheless agreed on setting up a hotline between the two ministers in charge of cross-strait affairs to deal with emergencies.

Some Taiwan analysts have also said that the summit's effect could be quicker integration between the two sides, including political integration. One suggested that apart from the ministries dealing with cross-strait affairs - the Taiwan Affairs Office in Beijing and the Mainland Affairs Council in Taipei - other ministries could begin direct functional exchanges.

This would be the realisation of a concept of "one state, two governments" that was mooted by Chinese scholars some years back. Indeed, the meeting of Mr Xi and Mr Ma is seen by some as a tacit acknowledgement of such a reality.

Such deepening of ties, however, is not what all China's neighbours would like to see.

JAPAN'S UNEASE

Certainly, many want to see cordial ties between the two sides. The Taiwan Strait is one of the world's most dangerous flashpoints with the Chinese civil war not ended technically and China having said it would use force if Taiwan should declare independence.

However, the cautiousness of Japan's response to the summit said it all about its view on closer cross-strait ties. "While we expect movements between China and Taiwan such as this (the summit) to contribute to regional peace and stability, we would like to closely watch developments going forward," said Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga at a press conference on Monday.

Separately, the conservative Yomiuri Shimbun quoted unnamed senior government officials as saying that while Japan hoped the event would reduce tensions in East Asia, they also feared that the two sides would stand together to resist Japan on issues such as their rival claims over the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands, history, the controversial Yasukuni shrine and comfort women.

Mr Ma in his closed-door remarks to Mr Xi said he took an "open-minded" attitude towards the latter's recent suggestion that the two sides share "historical materials and (co-author) history books" concerning the anti-Japanese war of the 1930s and 1940s, said a statement from Taiwan's Foreign Ministry.

Yomiuri's report, according to Taiwan's Apple Daily, also quoted those close to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe as saying: "Japan's real thinking is that, the sense of unease and crisis is very strong; we are worried that Ma Ying-jeou, in order to boost the ruling party's popularity rating, would oppose Japan together with China."

Sankei Shimbun quoted a lawmaker from Mr Abe's Liberal Democratic Party as saying "there is a need to be on guard against China and Taiwan joining hands on the Senkaku issue".

Yomiuri in a report out of Washington DC quoted an unnamed government official as saying that the Americans, while welcoming the summit as helping to lower tensions in the Taiwan Strait, are also worried that it would affect the Taiwan elections or that it would be used by China to strengthen its stand on the South China Sea issue.

In its growing tussle with Beijing in the South China Sea - where China, Taiwan and four Asean states have overlapping territorial claims that have heightened tensions in the region - the last thing the US wants to see is Taiwan cooperating with China over the contested waters.

Not only would it be hard for Washington to persuade Taipei to limit its claims to the South China Sea in order to undermine China's claims based on a nine-dash-line map, which is itself based on a map drawn up between 1946 and 1948 by the then Kuomintang government in China before it lost the civil war to the Chinese Communist Party and fled to Taiwan, it could also mean China coming into possession of archival material that, according to analyst Li Mingjiang, Taiwan has on the process of the drawing of the map that showed US support for Chinese claims to the South China Sea at the time.

Associate Professor Li, of the Rajaratnam School of International Studies, said Taiwan also possesses records showing law enforcement actions of the Kuomintang government in the South China Sea in the 1950s and 1960s, which would strengthen China's claims to the area as countries in the region recognise the one-China principle.

More than that, as China's rival in the Asia-Pacific region, the US would dread to see Taiwan too close to China because the island is important strategically as part of the island chain from Japan to Indonesia that prevents China from expanding easily into the Pacific.

Still, Taiwan's leaders are constrained by the democratic process and with Taiwanese wary of China's political intentions, it might be a while yet before sufficient trust is built on either side for Taiwan to do what other powers in the region fear - joining hands with China on territorial disputes or turn against its security ally the US.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 11, 2015, with the headline 'What the Xi-Ma summit suggests for Taiwan and the region'. Print Edition | Subscribe