BEIJING: The presidents of China and Taiwan may be making history when they meet for the first time this weekend, but the surprise summit has been greeted with suspicion and some anger in Taiwan, coming as it has at extremely short notice just two months before elections there.Both governments said the two leaders, Presidents Xi Jinping of China and Ma Ying-jeou of Taiwan, would meet in Singapore to discuss cross-straits ties, which have improved significantly since Ma took office in 2008.But the meeting was immediately denounced by Taiwan’s opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) as an attempt by Beijing to influence January’s presidential and parliamentary elections in favor of Ma’s Nationalist Party, known as the Kuomintang (KMT).Ma, who steps down as Taiwan’s president next year, made improving ties with China one of his key policies, signing landmark investment and tourism deals. But the expected economic benefits from his pro-China stance largely failed to arrive, experts said, with wages stagnant in Taiwan and growth anemic.
Now his KMT faces heavy defeat in the elections at the hands of the DPP, opinion polls show. That has not gone down well in Beijing: the DPP has traditionally been much less favorably inclined towards Communist China.Experts said Beijing appeared to be trying to send a message to Taiwanese voters: that a vote for the KMT would be in their best interests, because it would lead to better ties with Beijing.But the meeting — with an unpopular, lame-duck president — could easily backfire, they said.“The reception here hasn’t been positive at all,” said J. Michael Cole, a Taipei-based senior fellow with the China Policy Institute at the University of Nottingham.Cole said the meeting appeared to have been initiated by Beijing, and was already seen by many people in Taiwan as an “11th hour attempt to shake things up a bit in the KMT’s favor” ahead of the elections.
But most of the frustration, he said, was directed at Ma, with anger surfacing on social media and on Taipei’s regular evening talk shows. A few dozen people also staged a brief demonstration outside the national legislature.Ma had always insisted he would only meet his Chinese counterpart if he had substantial public support for such a meeting. But many people believe Ma lacks any popular mandate to meet Xi; the short notice and lack of public consultation before Saturday’s meeting has only fuelled frustrations among many voters, and the DPP tried to take advantage.“President Ma picks this sensitive time for meetings. How can people not think of this as a political operation intended to affect the election?” DPP spokesman Cheng Yun-peng told reporters in Taipei, according to Reuters.
The opposition party later issued tried a statement also criticizing Ma for planning the meeting in secret.“This once again shows the Ma government’s tendency to do things in a black box, violate democracy and evade oversight, and the public will have difficulty accepting this,” it said.Cole said Beijing and the KMT could be using the meeting to play on fears that a victory for the DPP might disturb cross-straits ties. But he said the KMT’s attempt to play the pro-China card in the upcoming elections has so far failed.“It was promised for eight years by President Ma’s administration that closer ties to China would be the panacea to Taiwan’s economic problems — but that has not been the case,” he said.
Instead, Cole said, voters in Taiwan were fixated on domestic issues in this election, on improving the economy, the health-care system and social housing — “all things that affect everyday life.”Nathan Batto, a political scientist at Academia Sinica in Taiwan, agreed. “The effect of this is primarily to hurt the KMT because it’s refocusing the election away from other concerns and back to China,” he said. “Definitely DPP candidates will use to try to paint Ma as too eager to get close to China.”The KMT candidate is so far behind in the polls the party has already all but lost the presidential race, he said. Its main hope is to retain control of the legislature, by focusing not on national issues but on its candidates’ local performance, “but Ma is now nationalizing the election,” he said.
Leaders of the two sides have not met since Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalists lost the Chinese civil war to Mao Zedong’s Communists and fled to Taiwan.The state the Nationalists established there eventually evolved into a proud and vibrant democracy. Communist China, however, still views it as a renegade province, and insists Taiwan will one day be taken back, by force if necessary — especially if tries to declare formal independence.Relations were frosty in the extreme for decades, with the first formal meetings between lower-level officials only beginning after Ma took office.Saturday’s meeting has been carefully choreographed. It will take place on neutral ground in Singapore, a state with a majority ethnic Chinese population that has always enjoyed good relations with both sides.Zhang Zhijun, director of the Chinese Cabinet’s Taiwan Affairs Office, said in a statement that Xi and Ma would meet in their capacity as “leaders of the two sides” of the Taiwan Strait and would address each other not as “president” but as “mister.”
That formulation reflects China’s insistence that both Taiwan and the mainland are part of a single Chinese nation, but also affords both leaders equal status, possibly an attempt to blunt criticism in Taiwan that Ma was pandering to Communist China.“This is a pragmatic arrangement under the situation of the irresolution of cross-strait political differences on the basis of the one-China principle,” Zhang said.The two leaders will have dinner after their meeting but not sign any agreements or hold a joint news conference, officials said.Beijing is well aware that a previous attempt to influence elections in Taiwan backfired spectacularly. In 1996, then-Chinese President Jiang Zemin ordered war games and missile tests in the Taiwan strait in a bid to intimidate voters against re-electing President Lee Teng-hui, who China believed was moving the island closer towards formal independence.The crisis prompted President Clinton to send two aircraft carriers through the Taiwan Strait, but was also credited with helping Lee to a landslide election victory.
These days, Beijing’s threat is more muted, although it has not gone away. President Xi warned Taiwan in 2013 that a political differences could not be surpassed.But Beijing’s preferred solution — granting Taiwan the sort of autonomy that Hong Kong enjoys as part of China — enjoys little traction on the island, where most voters favor continuing with the current state of de facto independence.Experts said it was unlikely much would come out of the meeting of any substance, partly because Ma is a lame-duck. “I don’t think he will be able to fundamentally change the nature of the Taiwan-China relation. He doesn’t have the public mandate to do anything like that,” said Batto. “That said, he is going to set a precedent that the leaders on the two sides of the strait can meet in person. You can’t revoke that precedent.”In China, Shi Yinghong, professor of international relations at Renmin University, called Saturday’s meeting a “historic event,” but regretted it did not take place earlier.“If it had happened two years ago, it is possible it would have led to substantial achievements,” he said. “It could have created a large economic effect across the strait. The two sides could have found a starting point to maintain cross-strait peace.”But with Ma stepping down soon, he added, “there won’t be any substantial and immediate influence from the meeting.