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Strategic Significance Of China-Taiwan Summit – Analysis

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By D. S. Rajan*

There is no doubt that the summit meeting held between the leader of mainland China, Xi Jinping and his Taiwanese counterpart Ma Ying-jeou (Singapore, November 7, 2015) has been  historic; it  marked first of such an occasion  in 66 years since the end in 1949 of the civil war in China. How the meeting came about? According to Ma (http://www.wsj.com/articles/taiwan-china-meeting-a-push-for-peace-ma-yin…),   the seeds for the meeting were sown after a 2013 encounter during an Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation gathering in Bali between Zhang Zhijun, leader of Beijing’s Taiwan Affairs Office (TAO) and Wang Yu-chi, then the head of Taiwan’s Mainland Affairs Council (TMAC). Since then, the two met on multiple occasions, including in  Nanjing and in Taiwan. Ma further disclosed that during a meeting in October 2015, with Andrew Hsia, Wang’s successor, Zhang raised the idea of a joint Xi-Ma meeting and both sides began discussing an appropriate location. The inference thus is that the initiative for the meeting came from mainland China; this would be of great interest to the analysts.

The summit is significant politically for the two sides in the current context. In the case of China, the meeting marks an initial but significant breakthrough achieved by President Xi Jinping in realizing the most important domestic goal- peaceful reunification with Taiwan. The timing of the meeting is particularly and equally significant. It has coincided with Xi’s full consolidation of political power within the country and launch of major foreign policy initiatives (e.g the ‘belt and road’ proposal and ‘Asia for Asians’ concept) to serve the stated aims of common development and prosperity in the region. However, there seems to be a fear that such initiatives reflect China’s ambition to spread its strategic influence externally. The Singapore event can especially be considered as part of Xi’s drive towards reducing tensions in the region which have arisen due to China’s building of artificial islands in the South China Sea. Xinhua (November 6, 2015) claimed “there is a new look and feel to China’s diplomacy. Never before have China’s leaders been so keen to reach out to the world beyond their borders”.

The summit is also a land mark event for Taiwan. It  has come prior to the presidential and parliamentary elections there scheduled for January 2016 in which the believed sure winner is the pro-independent opposition party, the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP); the expectation is that the DPP’s Tsai Ing-wen, the prospective next Taiwan President   may be opposed to continuing the summit process initiated by Ma. From the mainland’s perspective, Tsai’s assuming charge has to be met with ‘strongly defensive’ responses from it including application of the 2005 Anti-Secession Law; this may result in new challenges to the cross-Straits relationship (“Provocative words expose Tsai’s true intent”, Global Times, November 9, 2015, http://www.globaltimes.cn/content/951528.shtml).

One should at the same time not exaggerate the importance of the summit for mainland-Taiwan reunification. Xi seems realistic and not in a hurry for quick results. In fact, he foresees serious challenges for the unification cause in the post-Ma period. According to the Chinese officials, Xi told Ma in the meeting that “as long as the 1992 consensus and the co-ideas can be honored, we will be more than willing to communicate with our counterparts, but the forces seeking Taiwanese independence are the most real threat to cross-strait peace.” In the words of Professor Andrew Nathan of Columbia University, the USA, “the time is not ripe for Beijing to ’close the deal’ on Taiwan unification, so they have to wait, refrain from triggering a crisis, and hope for an improvement in China’s image among the Taiwan voters.”  Taiwan is also cautious; Ma acknowledged (November 12, 2015) that the gap between the two sides remains vast and indicated his desire to maintain the status quo.

The summit process if proceeds further has a definite meaning for the Asia-Pacific region as a whole. If a conducive atmosphere for an ultimate mainland China – Taiwan reunification emerges, the US may develop reasons to reexamine its Taiwan policy. Hypothetically, if sovereignty of Taiwan becomes a non-issue for the mainland and Taiwan one day, there may be no place for Taiwan Relations Act in the US scheme of things, a situation which may cause a new transformation in Washington-Beijing ties. Also, a united China if it comes will be a big new factor in regional geo-politics. The implications for regional trade will be enormous.

It should be important for analysts to note that for reasons best understood, the two sides have avoided giving any sign that the Xi-Ma meeting was a formal one between two presidents.   They agreed to term it as one held between ‘’leaders across the straits’’. Xi and Ma called each other “mister” and shared the expenditure for the meeting. No national flags were displayed and no joint communiqué or statement was issued on the occasion.  

No full details on the closed door Xi-Ma meeting are available so far, preventing an accurate   analysis on what can be expected following the meeting. However, from the publicized remarks made by the two leaders prior to the meeting and the observations made by the  Chinese Minister of the Taiwan Affairs Office of the State Council, Mr Zhang Zhijun, at a  press conference held subsequent to the meeting  (full texts given in Annexure for record), the following broad picture seems to emerge:   

  • Atmosphere of the Summit: The Xi-Ma meeting was held in an atmosphere of ‘mutual respect’.  Of particular interest is the noting by mainland officials that the two reviewed bilateral ties in the last 66 years in a “in a spirit of mutual respect and a commitment to peaceful development.”
  • Common Stress on “Chinese nation”: While both the leaders mentioned about ‘rejuvenating the Chinese nation’, what distinguishes Xi’s stand from that of Ma is the emphasis of the former that both mainland and Taiwan come under one sovereignty. Xi said that “the fundamental principle is that Taiwan and the Mainland China actually belong to one Chinese nation, and it is not a relation between two countries. It should always be deemed as one sovereignty.  We are closely-knit kinsmen, and blood is thicker than water”.
  • Consensus on “1992 Consensus”: Most important is consideration by both Xi and Ma that the “1992 consensus” reached by the two sides is the “political foundation of cross straits relationship”. It may be recalled that under the consensus, a formula was tacitly agreed upon by Beijing and Taipei allowing dialogue between them, along with a condition that there is only “one China” with each side free to interpret what “one China” means. The Ma administration in Taiwan says the term “one China” refers to the Republic of China; Beijing on its part of late seems to ignore the provision for different interpretations by limiting itself to insisting that the term refers to “one china” of which Taiwan and the mainland are indivisible components (http://nationalinterest.org/feature/china-demolishes-the-taiwan-consensus-12396). In any case, during the meeting, the two leaders mentioned only about the consensus, without making any reference to freedom to interpret. This indicates their strong desire not to give importance to technical aspects of the consensus and instead pursue the dialogue process set by them.
  • Mainland- Taiwan Hotlines: As reported by Chinese officials, Xi agreed with Ma’s proposal to set up a cross-strait hotline, so as to help improve exchanges and dialogue.
  • Changed mainland perception of Taiwan: During the summit, the mainland gave a clear message that its perception on Taiwan has changed. As noted by Chinese officials, Xi told Ma during the meeting that “since the historic developments from 2008 onwards, relations are at its best since 1949 with much exchanges and cooperation. It is not adversarial like in the past, with no enmity and conflict now”. Thus, Taiwan is a non-adversary for the mainland now; such thinking   may have implications for Beijing’s security policy towards Taiwan in future.
  • Missile issue discussed? : According to Ma, Xi said that “the Chinese military deployments do not target Taiwan”.  This indicates that China’s known option on to use force to reunify Taiwan or the matter of Chinese missiles deployed on the Taiwanese coast, could have figured during Xi-Ma talks. The People’s Daily, the official mouthpiece of the ruling Communist Party, warned against “Taiwan independence forces” in an editorial (November 8, 2015) but it made no reference to China’s intention to use force against them. The state-run Global Times (November 9, 2015) however has referred to China’s Anti-Secession Law (2005) suggesting use of force by the mainland.(the law’s Article 8 stated that “the State shall use non-peaceful and other necessary means if Taiwan independence forces, under whatever name and method, accomplish the fact of Taiwan’s separation from China or if a major event occurs which would lead to Taiwan’s separation from China, or if all possibility of peaceful unification is lost”). It appears that Beijing’s rhetoric for an offensive action against Taiwan is likely to grow in intensity after the expected assuming of power in the latter by the pro-independence DPP.  It is another matter, whether or not this will actually happen.
  • Military Security Mechanism? : Also, in the context of the summit, there is no publication of any Chinese material reiterating Beijing’s earlier declared position on a cross-straits peace agreement and military security mechanism. Despite the apparent silence in this regard on the part of both the sides, chances are that this subject could have come up for discussion in the summit and that the talks on it still remain inconclusive. (The then Chinese Communist Party chief Hu Jintao had said in the party’s 18th Congress in 2012 that “we hope the two sides will discuss the establishment of a cross-Straits military security confidence-building mechanism to maintain stability in their relations and reach a peace agreement through consultation so as to open a new horizon in advancing the peaceful growth of these relations)”.
  • Mainland Nod to Taiwan’s diplomatic space: Chinese officials quoted Xi as saying during the meeting that his country “knows Taiwan wants to participate in international events, and as long as it doesn’t go against the One China policy, we can actually arrange through friendly consultation. Both sides can coordinate on this without hurting ties”. China’s Taiwan Affairs Office Minister Zhang Zhijun has also said that Beijing is willing to consider and discuss the issue of Taiwan’s international space as long as no perception of ‘two Chinas’ is created. Are signals towards China’s conditional willingness now not to object to Taiwan’s getting more diplomatic space emerging?
  • Veiled warning to the US: Xi stated before the closed door meeting started that “we must act together and show the world that the Chinese people across the Straits have every ability to handle our own issues and to contribute to the peace and stability in the region, and the world”. The usage ‘’handling our own issues” appears to hide a caveat- no foreign power should interfere in cross-straits issues. An oblique Chinese message to the US?
  • Beijing-Taipei hotlines: The two sides seem to be in favour of establishing hot lines between Taiwan’s Mainland Affairs Council and the mainland’s Taiwan Affairs Office.
  • Trade agreement? :Xi talked about the need for a bilateral consensus on a mainland China-Taiwan trade agreement.  It would be interesting to watch how the proposal would develop in future, particularly after the expected regime change in Taiwan.
  • Taiwan in Silk Road projects and AIIB? : Xi’s invitation to Taiwan to participate in the Chinese “One Belt, One Road project” and in the AIIB, ‘using the relevant methods’ is notable. Ma’s response on this is not clear.

What are the motivations behind Xi and Ma in agreeing for such a summit? For Xi, the immediate aim appears to be putting pressure on the Taiwan presidential hopeful, Tsai, to stick to the 1992 consensus principle, but with no encouragement to Taiwan independence forces. In a long term, for the mainland leader, the priority lies in fulfillment of national rejuvenation task; he may feel that this will not be possible without reunification with Taiwan for which events like the Singapore summit may be desirable.  As far as Ma is concerned, he may not gain much from the summit. Ma has denied the perceptions that he is aspiring to create a legacy of cross-strait co-operation as he demits office. Even then, one can not dispute the validity of such perceptions.

*The writer, D. S. Rajan, is Distinguished Fellow, Chennai Centre for China Studies, Chennai, India. Contributing date – November 11, 2015. Email: [email protected]

Annexure

Transcript of Ma’s remarks in the first 10 minutes of the meeting that was open to the media:

Mr Xi, friends from the two delegations across the straits, and people present today,

Today, I and Mr Xi in our capacities as leader across the straits, we are holding the future of the two sides across the straits and history.

In April 1993, Mr Koo Chen-fu and Mr Wang Daohan held talks and they inked four agreements that laid the foundations of a mechanism for cross-straits dialogue.

When I spoke with the founding Prime Minister of Singapore Lee Kuan Yew, I said that the foundations of the cross-strait relationship should be based on well being of our people.

What is behind us is the long history of the relationship. In the past few years, we decided to replace conflict with people dialogue and we have stuck to the path of prosperity and wellbeing.

We can swear to the whole world our determination to peaceful development of people’s rights. We follow different political systems, but we develop dialogue in terms of military and economic cooperation. This is not done overnight. There are over 40,000 of cross-strait student exchanges annually. There are US$170 billion of trade value across the straits. These are the fruits of our relations.

The ancient book of “shang shu” says we have to really trust each other and seek pragmatic strategies. In the past few years, we have reached a couple of cooperative deals. This is in line with expectations across the straits and also the global community.

I want to make five proposals for peaceful development:

In 1992, we reached the 1 China consensus. This is the political foundation of cross straits relationship that we both stick to. It is on this foundation that we reached 23 agreements, making the relationship its very best in 66 years.

Second, we have to reduce animosity across the straits. We are never enemies like before. We cannot develop animosity and we need to resolve conflict through dialogue.

Third, increase exchanges and cooperation. We need to establish institutions on each other’s side and create win-win cooperation with each other.

Fourth, we need need hotlines on both sides. As the two exchange foundations across the strait, we have established communication mechanisms. We also have to establish hotlines between Taiwan’s Mainland Affairs Council and China’s Mainland Taiwan Affairs Office.

We are all descendents of the chinese people. We should cooperate together and rejuvenate the Chinese nation.This is not out of our self-interests but for the benefit of our future generations. We must value what people value and safeguard peace across the strait to ensure win-win cooperation.

Mr Xi, today’s cross-strait relations most peaceful since 1994. In the past few years, I always see Taiwanese students discuss and research with Chinese students. I have seen them study together. This is very heartfelt. They are all very passionate and innovative..

Transcript of what Chinese President Xi Jinping said in the first 10 minutes of the meeting that was open to the media: (http://www.todayonline.com/singapore/transcript-china-president-xi-jinpi…)

History has left bad memories and deep regrets for untold families on both sides of the Taiwan Strait. But the Strait cannot prevent relatives and friends from missing each other.

The power of kinship in the 1980s finally pushed forward the dialogue across the strait. Since 2008, the two sides across the strait have made progress along the road towards dialogue.

In the last seven years, the two sides across the straits have made much progress in the development of cross-Strait relations, and these are due to the hard work of the people from both sides.

It is because of the work that has been done over these last seven years that we are able to take this historic step today. At this juncture, I would like to extend my sincere gratitude to all those who have made efforts to push forward cross-Strait relations.

No matter how much difficulty we have gone through, no power can separate us because we are closely-knit kinsmen, and blood is thicker than water. Now we are at a juncture in our relationship. We cannot repeat historical tragedy. We cannot lose the fruits of our development. People across the Strait should continue to push forward a peaceful development and enjoy the fruits of peace together.

We should learn and reflect from the history of the cross-Strait relationship. We must be responsible for history, and make wise decisions that will stand the test of time.

We must act together and show the world that the Chinese people across the Straits have every ability to handle our own issues, and to contribute to the peace and stability in the region, and the world.

I hope the two sides across the Strait can work together and stick to the 1992 consensus. Consolidate our political foundation, continue down the path of development, and ensure that our ties continue to develop in the right direction.

We should deepen our exchanges and cooperation, increase the well-being of people across the strait, and push forward the great rejuvenation of the Chinese people.

This is all I have to say for now. Thank you.

Transcript of remarks after Xi, Ma meet,  made by Zhang Zhijun, Director of Taiwan Affairs Office of the State Council.  

Both sides waited 66 years since 1949 for the first meeting between the leaders of both sides – Mr Ma and Mr Xi. Both sides met in the spirit of mutual respect and a commitment to peaceful development. Both sides had a sincere and in-depth exchange where they reviewed the last 66 years of the relationship.

Both sides have, in recent years, moved towards peaceful development, and we have seen the results of this.

Mr Xi said that this meeting has opened a new chapter. Cross-Strait relations have been marred by conflict, separation and much anxiety among the people, leaving scars on many families. But since 2008, when both sides began the path for peaceful dialogue, the situation has changed. Mr Xi has said that no matter how much tribulation both sides have to face, nothing can separate us. We are closely knit kinsmen and blood is thicker than water.

We are now at a historical crossroads in our relationship. Today, we want to talk about how to avoid the tragedy of the past from occurring once again, so that our next generation may enjoy a better future.

We will stick to the 1992 consensus and work towards peaceful development of ties. We will enhance cross-Strait exchanges and cooperation.

During the closed door session, Mr Xi listened to Mr Ma and said that now we are faced with a new situation, and we should bear in mind the well-being of the people and move with the times such that we can rejuvenate the Chinese nation.

On that note, Mr Xi came up with four points. First, we should stick to the political foundations of the cross-Strait relations. Over the past few years, it is our willingness to stick to the 1992 consensus and our opposition to Taiwanese independence that made a peaceful development of cross-Strait ties possible. Without that, the whole relation across the Straits would have collapsed. The 1992 consensus is very important in that it clarifies the fundamental nature of the cross-Strait relationship, according to Mr Xi. Taiwan and the Mainland China actually belong to one Chinese nation, and it is not a relation between two countries. It should always be deemed as one sovereignty. Mainland China and Taiwan belong to one nation, and one country and this cannot be changed. This is a fundamental principle that we should honour.

According to Mr Xi, it is our wish that the Taiwanese political parties will honour the 1992 consensus no matter what we have done in the past. As long as the 1992 consensus and the co-ideas can be honoured, we will be more than willing to communicate with our counterparts, and we shall never accept separationists.

Secondly, cooperation between both sides must also be enhanced, said Mr Xi. Since the historic developments from 2008 onwards, relations are at its best since 1949 with much exchanges and cooperation. It is not adversarial like in the past, with no enmity and conflict now.

We must strive for win-win cooperation, and resolve the feelings of enmity. We must stick to the path of peaceful development.

On the idea of a hotline between both sides, Mr Xi said we must strengthen exchanges and dialogue, as well as look at how to solve long running problems while resolving differences. This will help with timely communications and prevent misunderstandings. The two ministers can link up.

Both sides must mutually respect each other. So that this does not get in the way of exchanges and hurt people. Mr Xi said that he knows Taiwan wants to participate in international events, and as long as it doesn’t go against the One China policy, we can actually arrange through friendly consultation. Both sides can coordinate on this without hurting ties.

However, currently the biggest impediment to improving ties further is talk of independence. This will only bring harm to people, and the people must unite together.

Thirdly, both sides must be united. Let people have better lives. That is the basic principle. As long as we can help keep peaceful relations and maintain Chinese sovereignty, both sides should try their best. We are happy to share the benefits of economic developments with Taiwan. To that end, we should expand our economic cooperation.

Mr Xi said that we must try to seek consensus on a trade agreement, and invite Taiwan to participate in the Chinese One Belt, One Road project, and we are agreeable with Taiwan participating in AIIB using the relevant methods.

Many Taiwanese people have not been to China. We welcome them, and we hope for more cross-Strait exchanges.

We are inseparable entities. A strong nation is to the benefit of our people. We must have a strong Chinese nation, and we are closer to reaching the goal of Chinese Rejuvenation now than ever before.

This is the 70th anniversary of the end of WWII, which we won through great sacrifice. Mr Xi says that we need to encourage the scholars on both sides to collaborate on historical materials so that we can work together better to safeguard the honour and dignity of our people. In this meeting, we have reached a consensus on propelling relations forward.

We acknowledge the outcomes of 2008. What has been achieved since then is peaceful development, regional stability, increased exchanges and enhanced cooperation. Both sides mutually benefit from this. All our people are kinsmen. We must rejuvenate China. This consensus will be meaningful towards the development of cross-Strait ties in future.

SAAG

SAAG

SAAG is the South Asia Analysis Group, a non-profit, non-commercial think tank. The objective of SAAG is to advance strategic analysis and contribute to the expansion of knowledge of Indian and International security and promote public understanding.

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