LONDON – A great deal of water has flowed through the Taiwan Strait in the 70 years since the leader of China’s Communists, Mao Zedong, met the leader of his nationalist opponents, Chiang Kai-shek. So the recent meeting in Singapore between their heirs, President Xi Jinping of the People’s Republic and his Taiwanese counterpart, Ma Ying-jeou, could legitimately be described as historic.
The diplomatic negotiation that preceded the meeting was exquisitely complex, even covering who should pay for dinner (they split the bill). But, after a brief exchange of views behind closed doors, no joint statement was issued and only a heavily sanitized account of the meeting was made available to China’s state media.
So why did the meeting happen, and what does it portend?
Ever since Mao’s Communists won the civil war (which the last meeting between the parties, in 1945, had been called to try to avert) and Chiang Kai-shek’s Kuomintang forces withdrew to Taiwan, relations between the two sides have smoldered without ever really catching fire. While there was no love lost between the United States and the Kuomintang leadership, the US gave Taiwan assurances of military protection, which deterred China from trying to unify the island with the mainland by force.
Mao’s adventures on the Korean peninsula, supporting the North against the South and its Western allies, helped to cement the Washington-Taipei axis, which, thanks to some nifty diplomatic footwork, survived President Richard Nixon’s rapprochement with China in the early 1970s. America recognized the communists in Beijing as China’s legitimate government, while helping to sustain Taiwan in a limbo between sovereignty and the practical exercise of statehood. The island ran its own affairs, becoming a rambunctious democracy in the 1980s, but never insisted on international recognition as a full-fledged sovereign state.
For China’s rulers, Taiwan was a “renegade province,” and it steadily picked off members of the international community who tried to treat it as anything more than this. But there has also been a recognition of reality – especially economic reality – along the way.
People remember 1989 for the Tiananmen Square killings. But that May and June, ministers like me flew to Beijing for what seemed to us all to be a positive and truly historic occasion. China allowed Taiwan to attend the Asian Development Bank’s annual board meeting for the first time, provided it was called “Taipei, China.”
Some years later, when I was a European Union commissioner, after we had negotiated World Trade Organization membership with both the People’s Republic and Taiwan, we wanted to set up an EU office in Taipei to monitor the island’s compliance with the WTO’s rules. Before doing so, I made a point of telling the Chinese government what we were doing – opening a commercial regulator, not an embassy.
Money of course talks for both China and Taiwan, and their economies are now closely linked, with large numbers of Taiwanese living and working in China (especially in the Shanghai area) and huge Taiwanese investments in Chinese manufacturing. Taiwan’s Foxconn, the world’s largest electronics manufacturer (including Blackberries, iPhones, and Kindles), has 12 factories in China, including one in Shenzhen that employs hundreds of thousands of workers.
But, though Taiwanese politics is naturally dominated by the island’s relationship with the mainland, the reality of deep commercial ties between China and Taiwan has had no diplomatic equivalent. The Kuomintang (also called the Chinese Nationalist Party) wants to improve relations without surrendering Taiwan’s independence. Its opponent, the Democratic Progressive Party, wants to strike a more autonomous posture, though whether it would ever really go for anything more substantial than tweaking China’s nose is doubtful.
A survey three years ago suggested that 80% of Taiwan’s 25 million people would support a formal declaration of independence, provided that it did not prompt a Chinese invasion. That is a rather large caveat. China regularly warns Taiwan against any such reckless action, and the US puts the squeeze on the island’s leaders whenever they seem to be getting too uppity with the mainland.
There appear to be two reasons why Xi and Ma met. First, they are clearly worried that the Kuomintang, which lost last year’s local elections in a landslide, will lose the general election in January as well. Both hope that showing that China and Taiwan can get along without too much trouble will bring electoral benefits for the Nationalists.
In addition, at a time when the Chinese economy is slowing and regional tensions are rising because of China’s muscle flexing in the South and East China Seas, Xi seems eager to radiate peace-loving ambitions. Having unsettled many of his neighbors, not just the Americans, his upcoming visit to Vietnam, and his prime minister Li Keqiang’s visit to South Korea, are of a piece with his dinner-hour diplomacy with Ma.
China’s real, long-term intentions are not entirely obvious, and maybe that’s part of its strategy: ambiguous signals play an important role in diplomacy. But two things are clear.
First, Xi’s initiative shows the extent to which he dominates Chinese politics. A weaker leader could not have taken such an ambitious step, which represents a real break with past Communist orthodoxy.
Second, peaceful reunification of the mainland and Taiwan remains unlikely, unless it takes place – as China continues to promise – on the basis of “one country, two systems.” But the Taiwanese cannot be very reassured by what they see happening today in Hong Kong, which was promised the same thing before its return to China in 1997.
Taiwan’s system is democratic; China’s is not. What the example of Hong Kong suggests is that China would have to force Taiwan to give up democracy and the rule of law – or embrace both itself – before it could welcome its “renegade province” back into the fold.
Chris Patten, the last British Governor of Hong Kong and a former EU commissioner for external affairs, is Chancellor of the University of Oxford.
Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2015.
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