Taiwan and China set to take a positive step forward

An historic summit is about to take place between Ma Ying-jeou, leader of the ruling party of Taiwan, and Xi Jinping, leader of the ruling party on mainland China.

Chinese President X i(R) and Taiwan President Ma

China’s President Xi Jinping (L) and Taiwan’s President Ma Ying-jeou

The meeting in Singapore on November 7 will be the first time a leader of the KMT party meets leader of China’s CCP in 66 years since the KMT lost their hold on the mainland and relocated the Republic of China to Taiwan.

The announcement for the Xi-Ma summit has the feel of a “Hail Mary” pass — from American football terminology. The impression of a last minute desperation heave is because Ma’s term of office is nearing its end and his likely successor Tsai Ing-wen from the opposition party, DPP, with her generally negative attitude about the cross-straits relations, is hardly the person Xi would like to partner for ice-breaking across the Taiwan Straits.

Both sides denied that this was a last minute, hastily arranged meeting or that it was called in response to the rising tension over the South China Sea.  It took months for the two sides to agree on how to address each other so as not to incur any implied recognition of Taiwan’s sovereignty status. They finally agreed to call each other “Mister.” After their meeting, they will have a “no-host” dinner together and split the bill.

According to spokesperson for Ma, he had proposed such a meeting over two years ago to be held on the sidelines of an APEC summit but Beijing had demurred.

The generally accepted explanation was that Beijing did not wish to give any appearance of recognizing Taiwan as a separate sovereign state. Holding the meeting now with a few remaining months before Ma leaves office is subject to a number of mutually non-exclusive interpretations.

Having returned from successful state visits to the US and UK, Xi Jinping is confident in his role as a globetrotting leader and comfortable in his skin as a diplomat. Seems the right time to begin the meeting with Taiwan from the top.

Since Ma took office in 2008, he has worked hard to improve the cross-traits relations. Even though he has failed to articulate the importance of a close relationship with the mainland to the people of Taiwan, Xi can expect Ma to appreciate the importance and can anticipate that their conversation will be fruitful.

It is also important to break the no meet/no speak embargo and begin the precedence of a cross-straits summit now than wait for the next Taiwan administration.

Tsai Ing-wen of the DPP is expected to become the next leader of Taiwan after the election next year. Given her less than cordial attitude about the mainland, any summit could be icy and unproductive if they occur at all. To initiate precedence breaking first meeting under Tsai’s administration would be a daunting task.

Despite the preferential trade agreement Beijing has extended to Taiwan under the Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement (ECFA), many in Taiwan especially among the younger generation have not appreciated the benefits of being economically integrated with the mainland.

By establishing a platform of more direct dialogue after the summit in Singapore, Beijing will have future opportunity to talk more directly with the people of Taiwan and persuade them of advantages of a closer relationship.

Tsai has grudgingly accepted the notion of having such a summit provided the results of the meeting do not go into a “black box,” i.e., kept secret and undisclosed to the public in Taiwan.

She has expressed concern that this could be a last minute surprise maneuver reminiscent of the assassin bullet that grazed Chen Shui-bian’s belly and changed the outcome of the election of 2004. (The alleged assassination attempt garnered Chen enough sympathy to win him the election with the thinnest of margins.)

Ma sought to assure the Taiwan people that the purpose of the meeting in Singapore is to “consolidate cross-strait peace and maintain the status quo.” He promised that the summit would produce no agreements or joint declarations.

In their closed-door session that will last about one hour, Xi should take the opportunity to say to Ma, “Mr. Ma, in a few months you will become the senior statesman in Taiwan. I hope you will take advantage of your status being above the fray of politics to explain the importance of the economic linkage across the straits to the economic well-being of Taiwan.

“Through your past efforts to strengthen the ties with the mainland, Taiwan’s economy is strong. Tell the people of Taiwan that if and when they decide that they do not wish to be part of China, we would have to withdraw the favorable economic terms given to our brethren to date. The consequences for Taiwan would be disastrous.”

When Eric Chu, KMT candidate for president, heard about the impending Xi-Ma summit, he said, “Both sides of the strait must continue to engage with each other and promote cooperation to achieve a win-win situation based on peaceful development.”

Win-win is the foundation of Xi’s global diplomacy. Chu’s remark should be music to his ears. Too bad Chu is running far behind Tsai and is unlikely to be the next Taiwan leader and move cross-straits relations forward toward win-win engagements.

Dr. George Koo recently retired from a global advisory services firm where he advised clients on their China strategies and business operations. Educated at MIT, Stevens Institute and Santa Clara University, he is the founder and former managing director of International Strategic Alliances. He is a member of the Committee of 100, the Pacific Council for International Policy and a director of New America Media.

The opinions expressed in this column are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the view of Asia Times.

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