Beijing would like to give a helping hand to Taipei’s ruling Kuomintang as it fights off a challenge from an opposition less bullish on ties with the mainland
Presidents Xi Jinping of China and Ma Ying-jeou of Taiwan will meet in Singapore on Saturday, the first encounter between the topmost leaders of the two sides since the Kuomintang (Nationalist) forces of Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek fled the Chinese mainland in 1949 faced with advancing troops of the Communist Party of China (CPC).
The official Chinese news agency Xinhua carefully noted in the very first line in one of its reports that the two leaders would address each other as “mister”. Beijing’s stand is that the Republic of China (ROC) – as Taiwan calls itself – is a renegade province awaiting reunification with the People’s Republic of China (PRC). The media in China never refers to Taiwanese leaders by their designations. Thus the Chinese official fiction is that the Xi-Ma meeting will not be one between two presidents.
Three questions arise: Why Singapore as venue? Why now? And what does this imply for the neighbourhood?
The first is easily answered. The two leaders could not possibly meet on each other’s soil as protocol would demand mutual recognition of their official posts. It had to be a third party venue. Singapore has long enjoyed extremely close relations with both Beijing and Taipei. It had served as the venue for the very first high level meeting between the two sides’ representatives in 1993: Wang Daohan of Beijing’s Association for Relations Across the Taiwan Straits and Koo Chen-fu of Taipei’s Straits Exchange Foundation met in Singapore in 1993 and signed agreements to boost economic, scientific, cultural and other exchanges.
Why now? Taiwan’s general elections are due in January. And there are precedents to China’s attempts at influencing the outcomes of Taiwanese elections. For instance, in 1996, China fired missiles in the direction of Taiwan ahead of elections in which incumbent President Lee Teng-hui got re-elected although he had rattled Beijing with his subtle backing for a quasi-formal independence for Taiwan. The missile tests only helped Lee.
Almost all opinion polls in Taiwan indicate that the Kuomintang will lose in January 2016 to the Democratic People’s Party (DPP), which is more inclined towards independence. Hence the widespread suspicion that the Xi-Ma meeting is an attempt at influencing the course of the elections in Taiwan.
This is somewhat similar to India attempting to influence the results of elections among its neighbours – often getting egg on its face as recent events in Nepal have shown.
Moreover, Ma will be completing his second and final term as president and the speculation is that he is going for this spectacular meeting with the top Chinese leader in order to seal his place in history and perhaps lend a hand to the Kuomintang presidential candidate Eric Chu, who is badly trailing the DPP’s Tsai Yin-wen.
China’s Xi has his own compulsions: the years of runaway economic development seem to be over and the growth rate is slowing down. There have been major incidents of labour unrest across the land. Ethnic minorities are restive. Pictures of his meeting with Ma, who is arguably the most pro-China president Taiwan has even had, might go down well with the Chinese public.
The proverbial elephant in the room where they meet will be the D word – democracy. Taiwan has been a democracy (albeit as flawed as many others in East Asia) with a vibrant free press since the 1990s. By a long shot, among the five Chinese-majority entities in the world – China, Singapore, Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan – it is today the freest. And excepting a tiny number of hardened and ageing Kuomintang members in Taiwan, there would be few takers for reunification with an autocratic China.
Xi and Ma seem to be forgetting that events in Hong Kong last year showed up the bankruptcy of the principle under which China seeks to take over Taiwan – “One Country, Two Systems”. The late Chinese patriarch Deng Xiaoping came up with this formula in the 1980s, stating that Hong Kong and Macau, and eventually Taiwan, could retain their capitalist and political systems for many decades. Incidentally, China has itself been pursuing robber-baron capitalism for well over three decades, although its ruling party persists in calling itself “communist”. Rather, the CPC is a hyper-nationalist club counting tens of millions of adherents.
Not ‘two systems’ but one
Hong Kong’s “Occupy” movement led by students demanding genuine democracy in the territory showed up the fact that Beijing was focused on the “One Country” part of the formula, while riding roughshod over the second part. Thus, formerly British-ruled Hong Kong and formerly Portuguese-ruled Macau have been deprived of what Beijing had agreed to in the 1980s, namely democracy.
Article 45 of Hong Kong’s Basic Law as formulated by Beijing’s own negotiators in the 1980s says: “The ultimate aim is the selection of the Chief Executive by universal suffrage upon nomination by a broadly representative nominating committee in accordance with democratic procedures.” But last year Beijing decided to continue restricting the numbers on the nominating committee for candidates in the election to follow in 2017. This is akin to Iran’s Council of Guardians, which vets presidential candidates. Obviously, Hong Kong’s pro-democracy camp, especially the youth, saw red.
The scale of the peaceful protests in Hong Kong made worldwide news for weeks. Eventually, the “Occupy” movement died out, partly thanks to successful appeals in Hong Kong’s as yet independent courts against the traffic disruptions. And Beijing won a pyrrhic victory: meaning Hong Kong’s pro-democracy camp is down, but not out.
Taiwan’s President Ma had followed these developments keenly and had come out with remarkably cogent comments on how they would affect China-Taiwan relations and the prospects of “reunification”.
“If Hong Kong can soon achieve universal suffrage, it would be a win-win for Hong Kong and the mainland (China), and it can greatly help narrow the mental gap between residents on both sides of (the Taiwan Straits) and allow for the relations to develop positively,” Ma said late last year, adding: “Otherwise, it may deepen the antipathy of Taiwan’s public and hurt the future of relations between the two sides.”
But a year later, neither Ma nor Xi appears to have any desire to learn from the lessons of the Hong Kong protests.
What of neighbouring countries? Xi is currently in Vietnam, with which – and with others such as the Philippines, Indonesia and Malaysia – Chinese disputes over vast tracts of maritime space in the South China Sea have often erupted in verbal and physical tension.
Incidentally, Taiwan, in as much as it had in at least the first four decades of its existence as the ROC, claimed sovereignty over the whole territory of the PRC and – for good measure – Mongolia’s as its own, is also party to the disputes in the South China Sea. And its claims coincide with those of China’s. That is unlikely to change if the DPP’s Tsai becomes Taiwan’s president in January. She is bound to go by Taipei’s time-honoured claims.