Taipei, 3 November 2015: late at night, the announcement by a reliable press source — confirmed shortly thereafter by governments in Taipei and Beijing — that President Ma Ying-jeou and President Xi Jinping would meet the following Saturday in Singapore took all circles by surprise: political parties, including Ma’s Nationalist Party (KMT), government agencies, academics, and journalists. Such astonishment was triggered by speculation around the timing and the scope of what was surely otherwise a ‘historic event’: the first meeting between the heads of state on both sides of the Taiwan Strait ever since the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, and the move of the Republic of China’s government to Taiwan.
The photo of Ma and Xi shaking hands on 7 November 2015 will be featured in textbooks and free online encyclopaedias for a long time to come. Yet, captioning this picture without further complicating the story will not be easy task if one wishes to provide slightly more context than simply ‘Mr Ma and Mr Xi shake hands.’ Indeed, a prerequisite of the meeting was that there be no mention of their respective titles and countries, lest anyone mistake this encounter as either the outcome or the starting point of any peace agreement. As a matter of fact, no agreements were signed and no joint statements were issued following the ‘summit.’
Certainly, since Ma Ying-jeou took office in 2008 no less than twenty-three cross-Strait agreements have been signed between the two sides. However, his proactive, pro-mainland policy met with growing opposition in Taiwan: the lack of transparency in the negotiation process as well as perceived unequal benefits stemming from the agreements triggered the Sunflower Student Movement — for more than three weeks students occupied the Parliament in March and April 2014 — while the KMT suffered a crushing defeat at the local elections a few months later in November.
Ma is no longer head of the KMT after being forced to step down as a result of his party’s disastrous electoral performance; the Ma government is essentially a caretaker administration since presidential and legislative elections will be held in two months’ time, on 16 January, with the main opposition party, the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), being more than likely to win.
So, why organise such a meeting? The secrecy surrounding its planning is telling in itself. At this point of his presidency, Ma Ying-jeou has no legitimacy ‘to consolidate cross-strait peace and maintain the status quo by reviewing the past and looking to the future,’ as he stated when explaining the purpose of his trip to Singapore. Certainly, any considerations with regards to legitimacy are not utmost in the minds of Beijing’s leadership. Choosing to hold the summit in a third country was wise, but landing on the occasion of Xi Jinping’s visit to the City-State to celebrate twenty-five years of Sino-Singaporean normalization could not but highlight Taiwan’s diplomatic isolation, for which no progress has been made under Ma’s presidency, contrary to his electoral promises.
By reaffirming the one-China principle through the so-called 1992 consensus — ‘one China, different interpretations’ — both Ma and Xi did not propose anything new. This formula was clearly articulated by the KMT in 2000 on the eve of the inauguration of the newly elected president, the DPP’s Chen Shui-bian. Since then, it has become the prerequisite imposed by Beijing on any cross-Strait talks. Yet, Taiwanese opposition parties, the DPP in particular, reject such a consensus, pointing out both a flaw in its form — an a posteriori reconstruction – and a flaw in its content — the one-China principle as a premise of the Taiwan issue.
Though the Singapore summit did not bring with it anything new of substance, Ma’s initiative could succeed in bringing back to the fore cross-Strait issues in the electoral debate, while the DPP has strived, up to now, to address only the core issues for most Taiwanese: the economy, housing, and food safety. However, the cynicism that has surrounded the Singapore event might also prove counterproductive in attempting to dissuade the Taiwanese electorate from voting for the DPP.
A handshake will certainly meet the irenic hopes of all those who are misled by symbolic gestures in foreign capitals acknowledging the one-China principle. Yet a symbolic meeting is ill-fitted to the chequered history of cross-Strait relations. If ever the time becomes ripe for leaders on both sides of the Strait to hold talks at the head of state level, they will already have been deprived of being the first to shake hands since 1949: therefore, only substance will then matter. Ma Ying-jeou’s legacy would have been more substantial if he had devoted his last months in office to push for the passing of a draft bill monitoring future cross-Strait agreements. But this would not have made the headlines of the world’s media.
Françoise Mengin is the author of Fragments of an Unfinished War: Taiwanese Entrepreneurs and the Partition of China. She is Senior Research Fellow at CERI/ Sciences Po, Paris, and has spent most of her research career examining the relationship of Taiwan within ‘Greater China’, especially from the perspective of state formation. Her other publications include Trajectoires chinoises: Taiwan, Hong Kong et Pékin, Cyber-China and Politics in China: Moving Frontiers.
She can be reached via email