Xi-Ma summit has changed the status quo

My good friend, a university mathematics professor and keen observer of Taiwan politics, pointed out to me that by virtue of the Xi-Ma historic summit having taken place, the goal posts of Taiwan’s status quo has already moved a step farther from independence.

China's President Xi Jinping and Taiwan's President Ma Ying-jeou face a gaggle of media before their closed-door talks

China’s President Xi Jinping and Taiwan’s President Ma Ying-jeou greet each other at Singapore

Up to now, the leader from Beijing would not agree to meet the leader from Taipei because that would imply a meeting of equals. In Singapore last Saturday, that meeting actually took place thus breaking the ice once and for all.

The summit was expected to be largely symbolic and no concrete developments were to come out of the meeting. In fact, the two sides found common ground where both Xi and Ma urged the other party to strengthen the cross-straits relations based on the 1992 consensus.

Of course, from Xi’s perspective the important part of the 1992 consensus is that both sides recognize that there is one China and Taiwan is part of that China. In Ma’s view, yes one China but according to each side’s interpretation. The opposition party in Taiwan, the DPP, and its leader, Tsai Ing-wen, does not accept the existence of the 1992 consensus at all.

According to the hundreds of journalists present to witness the historic event, the meeting was warm and cordial. At the scheduled time, both leaders strolled toward each other, smiling broadly and Xi was first to extend his hand.

The handshake lasted well over a minute as both men turned slowly to the right and left to give all the photographers a vantage point. This was a far cry from Xi’s stiff body language when he awkwardly shook Japan’s Prime Minister Abe’s hand earlier in the year.

Xi’s public remark was brief and in generalities. He said blood is thicker than water and tragedies of the past must not be repeated. Let this meeting be symbolic of both leaders turning a new page together in the cross-straits history.

Ma’s remarks followed and his was longer and spent a good part of it reviewing the accomplishments under his administration: 23 cross straits agreements related to economic cooperation, 40,000 students now studying across the straits, 8 million tourists visiting the other side (about half from the mainland to Taiwan and half in the opposite direction), and bilateral annual trade has now exceeded $170 billion with the trade surplus going to Taiwan.

Some specific accomplishments also came out of the closed-door conference between the two sides. Ma proposed installing a hot line across the straits and increasing the nature and frequency of bilateral exchanges. Xi agreed and delegated to China’s Taiwan Affairs Office for implementation.

Ma also asked for more access for Taiwan to the international community, heretofore severely limited by Beijing as the only sovereign government of China. Xi agreed to review on a case by case basis. In turn Xi indicated that Taiwan would be welcome as a member of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and participate in his One Belt, One Road initiatives.

Before the summit, Tsai Ing-wen, who is expected to win the next presidential election by a landslide, opined that the Xi-Ma summit would be considered historic if Ma is treated with equality and mutual respect and Taiwan keeps its current status without any preconditions. Otherwise, it would be merely a meeting.

To no one’s surprise, Tsai immediately dismissed the summit as “failure on all counts” after the conclusion of the closed-door conference by the two parties.

Assuming that Tsai wins the election and takes over the Taiwan government next year, she may yet come to appreciate the legacy Ma has left for her—the legacy being a bridge for future leaders to meet and confer.

The last time the DPP was routed from power, Chen Shui-bian was the sitting president and he had badly mismanaged Taiwan’s economy. Tsai knows full well she will face the same fate if she also fails to keep the economy humming. To do so, she will sooner or later have to work with Beijing.

In the 1990’s, Taiwan’s economy was comparable to the mainland and Taiwan businesses and manufacturing concerns were collectively the largest group of foreign direct investments in the mainland. Beijing welcomed these investments and granted the Taishang (Taiwan businessmen) most favorable terms.

Lee Teng-hui, then president of Taiwan, was worried that Taiwan was putting all its eggs in the mainland basket. He urged Taishang to diversify and put their factories elsewhere in Southeast Asia, anywhere but in China.

Many listened to Lee’s advice and invested elsewhere such as Philippines and Vietnam. Lacking the advantage of cultural affinity and common language, most of those investments ended in the red. The negative experiences only serve to affirm their focus on China.

Today, China’s economy is about 20 fold larger than Taiwan’s. Taishang’s presence and success on the mainland is far more important to Taiwan than to China. If Tsai attempts to roll back Taiwan’s economic integration with China and diversify Taiwan’s economic interests away from China, she will likely stumble just like Lee Teng-hui did.

I believe the day will come when Tsai will have to forego her separate dream and seek to join Xi’s China Dream. Then she will be glad to travel on the bridge to China that Ma built.

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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