The announcement that Chinese President Xi Jinping and Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou will hold a historic summit in Singapore on November 7 came as a total surprise. While the meeting, which will be the first between leaders of the mainland and Taiwan since 1949, represents a monumental breakthrough in cross-strait relations, many questions remain unanswered as to the intent and outcome of this summit.
Chinese and Taiwanese officials did, however, reach one clever semantic compromise. In the past, the most difficult hurdle for holding high-level official meetings between China and Taiwan has been Taiwan’s status. China insisted that Taiwanese officials either participate in their non-official capacities or present themselves as officials of a “provincial” or “regional” government, implicitly acknowledging the People’s Republic of China’s (PRC) sovereignty over the Republic of China (ROC), which is Taiwan’s formal name.
But this time, China apparently has made an important concession. Beijing’s announcement of the summit states that “leaders from both sides of the Taiwan Strait” will meet. Presidents Xi and Ma will also address each other as “Mister” (xiansheng in Chinese). The gesture acknowledges that the two officials are meeting in their official capacities (as leaders of two geographic areas) while avoiding the intractable sovereignty dispute.
The admirable flexibility demonstrated by Xi and Ma raises another question: why now and what do they hope to accomplish with the summit?
The timing of the gathering is significant for both presidents. President Ma, who is scheduled to step down in March 2016 after serving two terms, apparently wants to leave office as the only Taiwanese leader who has made the most progress in improving ties with the mainland. In the last seven-and-a-half years, Ma restored the transportation links with the People’s Republic and expanded official exchanges. With a summit to wrap up his presidency, Ma would have an enviable legacy as a leader in pursuit of peace and reconciliation.
But this legacy is under threat. Ma’s approach to the mainland is losing support among Taiwanese voters, who will elect a new president and legislature in mid-January. Opinion polls show that the opposition party—the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), which advocates formal independence from China—is poised to recapture the presidency and even win a majority in the legislature.
By holding a summit with Xi, Ma seems to believe that he will make it politically harder for a DPP president to dramatically reverse course. To be sure, the summit will only further antagonize the hardcore pro-independence cohort, but it will likely persuade moderates in Taiwan to support a policy of peace and reconciliation between the two nations.
Xi also has a compelling political reason to showcase his leadership and meet with Taiwan. With a struggling economy and an anti-corruption campaign that has made him unpopular with the bureaucracy, Xi needs to replenish his political capital. A landmark summit with Taiwan could offer that benefit. It demonstrates Xi’s bold leadership, particularly since such a meeting would have been inconceivable under his less decisive and powerful predecessors. Xi is also concerned that, should the DPP recapture the presidency in Taiwan next January, he would risk criticism of doing nothing to prevent such an outcome.
Unfortunately, if Beijing believes that a Xi-Ma summit will dramatically change Taiwan’s electoral dynamics two months before the election, they are being too optimistic. Yes, the historic meeting will likely improve the political fortunes of Ma’s party, the Kuomintang (KMT). But given the insurmountable lead of the opposition candidate, Tsai Ying-wen, who now enjoys a 20 percentage-point advantage in the latest opinion polls, the summit will not likely upend Taiwan’s presidential race.
If Chinese leaders are as sophisticated as most people believe, they must have another longer-term objective for the summit aside from attempting to influence Taiwan’s voters.
The conventional wisdom is that the Xi-Ma meeting is no more than a symbolic event. At one level, this is undoubtedly true. It is hard to imagine any substantive deals Ma, a lame-duck president, can actually agree to. So, it’s more useful to focus on the language that is used to define the relationship between Taiwan and China.
In 1992, China and Taiwan held a historic meeting in Singapore. The two representatives were close personal friends of the Chinese and Taiwanese presidents at that time. They hammered out a convoluted statement that basically said, “we agree to disagree” about the nature of the cross-strait relationship. However imprecise and frustrating, this statement gave China enough cover to engage in dialogue with Taiwan without giving up its sovereignty claims, and it allowed Taiwan to insist that it is a sovereign state.
Twenty-three years later, the question is whether Xi and Ma can do better. Realistically, we should expect no more than a reiteration of the 1992 statement. Anything beyond that will not be accepted by Taiwanese voters.
Minxin Pei is the Tom and Margot Pritzker ’72 Professor of Government at Claremont McKenna College and a non-resident senior fellow of the German Marshall Fund of the United States