Assessing the “Historic” China-Taiwan Summit and Its Implications for Japan

Kawashima Shin [Profile]

[2015.12.25] Read in: 日本語 | 简体字 | 繁體字 | FRANÇAIS | ESPAÑOL | Русский |

The “Historic” Cross-Strait Summit: What Will Change as a Result?

On November 7, 2015, President Xi Jinping of the People’s Republic of China and President Ma Jing-yeou of the Republic of China (Taiwan), held what was widely reported as a “historic” summit meeting in Singapore. It was the first such meeting between the leaders of the PRC and ROC.

By way of background, in 1946, following the end of World War II, a full-scale civil war broke out between the forces of the Communist Party of China and those of the Kuomintang (KMT, Nationalist Party), which controlled the government of the ROC. The Communists won control of mainland China and established the PRC in October 1949 with Beijing as its capital. In December of the same year the Nationalists retreated from their remaining mainland outpost in Sichuan to the island of Taiwan, making Taipei the capital of the ROC. Though the all-out fighting ended, the fundamentally adversarial relationship between the two sides continued for decades thereafter.

In 1991 the ROC softened its adversarial policy toward the mainland, and in the years that followed contacts across the Taiwan Strait progressed in various areas. After Ma Ying-jeou became president of the ROC in 2008, direct flights between Taiwan and mainland China were started, and large numbers of tourists from the mainland came to visit the island. In these and other respects, relations between the ROC and PRC have improved considerably, and the first meeting between their leaders, which symbolized this improvement, can indeed be termed “historic.” And it may seem that the two sides are now moving toward reunification. But this sort of rosy view has been voiced only in Japanese and some other foreign media commentary; it is unlikely that it is shared by the authorities in Beijing.

If we consider the long term, it does seem reasonable to use the “historic” label for the November 2015 summit and for the two leaders’ moves to reaffirm the “1992 Consensus,” about which I will explain below. But it appears highly doubtful that the meeting will lead to significant changes in the near future.

No Major Impact on Taiwan’s Presidential Election

What if any impact is the summit likely to have on the upcoming January 2016 elections for the ROC presidency and Legislative Yuan, Taiwan’s unicameral legislature? Ma Ying-jeou is currently serving his second term as president and is not eligible for reelection. Furthermore, his support ratings have been languishing at around 10%. The KMT is campaigning for the presidency with Eric Chu (Chu Li-lian), former mayor of New Taipei, as its candidate, but it now seems certain that the victor will be Tsai Ing-wen, chair of the opposition Democratic Progressive Party.

Starting in March 2014, Taiwan was rocked by student protests in what came to be known as the Sunflower Movement. The students and their supporters were expressing their opposition to President Ma’s handing of relations with the mainland and the KMT’s maneuvering within the legislature. Ma has already lost the support of the Taiwanese public; his meeting with President Xi will not change this, nor will it improve the electoral prospects for the KMT. On the contrary, it has led to increased criticism of Ma for the way the summit was suddenly arranged and for the lack of significant results from the meeting, where the two leaders did little more than affirm the 1992 Consensus, and where Ma went along with Xi’s commitment to “rejuvenating the Chinese nation.”

The majority of people in Taiwan actually take a positive view of the summit meeting itself. This does not mean, however, that the Taiwanese public supports reunification with the mainland or that cross-strait issues are now headed toward peaceful resolution. Comments to that effect were seen in the Japanese media, but such views are based on an outdated understanding. The Taiwanese for the most part are hoping to maintain the status quo, under which the ROC is not recognized as a state by the international community but effectively governs Taiwan. So their approval of the meeting between Ma and Xi is based on their view of it as a summit between a representative of the effective government of Taiwan and the leader of China—a foreign country, albeit the one with which Taiwan has the deepest ties.

From Beijing’s perspective, meanwhile, the reaffirmation of the 1992 Consensus by the two leaders at the summit was a highly significant development. Taiwan’s opposition DPP has not recognized the validity of this bilateral agreement. But thanks to its confirmation at the November 2015 summit, even if the KMT loses power and the DPP takes the reins, the new government will be under pressure to accept it. But what is this 1992 Consensus?

The Significance of Reaffirming the 1992 Consensus

In 1991, the ROC revoked its Temporary Provisions Effective During the Period of Communist Rebellion, under which the government had been authorized to suspend the constitution and mobilize the nation against the Communists. And in 1992 representatives of the ROC and PRC met in Hong Kong, where they reached an agreement that came to be called the 1992 Consensus. It was not announced at the time, however. A senior KMT legislator revealed it during the interim between the KMT’s defeat in the presidential election of March 2000 and the launch of a DPP administration in May of that year.

Under this consensus the two sides agreed on the “One China” principle, but according to the Taiwanese, the interpretation of this term is up to each side. The mainland, meanwhile, has not officially recognized this latter point. Also, the two sides use different terms to refer to the 1992 accord; the PRC calls it heyi (agreement), while the ROC calls it gongshi (consensus). And the posture of the government in Beijing changed after President Jiang Zemin (1989–2002) was succeeded by Hu Jintao (2002–12). Under the Jiang administration, Beijing denied Taipei’s assertion that “One China” was to be interpreted separately by each side. Under President Hu, by contrast, the mainland government shifted to a deliberately noncommittal stance of neither affirming nor denying this point.

At the November 2015 summit, it seems that President Xi carried on with the Hu administration’s stance—or perhaps moved closer to Taipei’s position on the matter. But the mainland authorities probably see it as a major accomplishment that they were able to display the 1992 Consensus once again as a cross-strait accord, and this development will place considerable pressure on the DPP in Taiwan.

President Ma’s Designs and the Future of the KMT

Why did President Ma seek to hold a summit with Xi at this juncture? For Beijing, as noted above, agreeing to the bilateral meeting seemed like a good way of promoting better cross-strait ties over the long term and, over the short term, of putting pressure on the DPP administration likely to be inaugurated in 2016. But for Ma the only plus was the prospect of leaving his name in the history of cross-strait relations. The summit seems to have had no benefit for his party, the KMT.

Ma did not go to China for the summit; it was held on the neutral ground of Singapore. And the two leaders split the bill for the meal and other expenses. In these respects Ma and Xi met as equals. And people in Taiwan appreciated these points. But the PRC handled the logistics and venue management, and Taiwanese dishes were absent from the menu, which featured specialties from the native regions of the PRC’s successive leaders.

So what does Ma see lying ahead now that the summit is behind him? As noted above, the January presidential election in Taiwan seems almost certain to produce a victory for the DPP’s Tsai Ing-wen over the KMT’s Eric Chu. The question is how the simultaneous election for the Legislative Yuan will go. The DPP is said to be leading on this front as well. Other, smaller parties are also expected to increase their numbers of seats, but in the context of what is basically a two-party system, the KMT will surely emerge as the second-largest force in the legislature. Ma is probably considering the prospects for the KMT in this position as the top opposition party.

The DPP administration expected to take office in May 2016 is likely to face rough going in relations with the mainland. And the KMT may well take advantage of its own cross-strait ties as a way of placing pressure on the DPP. In this context, the question of who manages these ties within the KMT will become important. Lien Chan, a former vice-president of the ROC, is currently responsible for the pipe between Taipei and Beijing, but he is getting on in years, and it is plausible to think that Ma, following his summit with Xi, aims to take over this responsibility.

Furthermore, if Eric Chu is defeated as expected in the upcoming presidential election, he is likely to step down from his post as chairman of the KMT. Ma may well seek to win back leadership of the party by overcoming the forces backing Wang Jin-pyng, the Taiwan-born-and-bred speaker of the Legislative Yuan. One can surmise that this sort of thinking was behind Ma’s decision to seek a summit with Xi when he did. But if the KMT does in fact try to use its ties to Beijing as a weapon against the DPP after the latter takes power next year, it runs the risk of being viewed as too “pro-China,” and a split might emerge within the KMT itself, with Wang Jin-pyng and his camp possibly breaking away from the party and regrouping with other political forces.

Implications for Japan

Trends in the relationship between the PRC and the ROC are extremely important for Japan, both in terms of national security and economically. So we must continue to place close heed to developments in cross-strait ties in the wake of the Xi-Ma summit.

Meanwhile, the fact that the two sides held this summit may well mean that Japan can and should reexamine some aspects of its policies toward China and toward Taiwan. For example, when Tokyo normalized diplomatic relations with Beijing in 1972, it recognized the PRC as the sole legal government of China and declared that it “fully understands and respects” the PRC’s claim that Taiwan is an inalienable part of its territory. For this reason, the handling of relations between Japan and Taiwan has been entrusted to a pair of “private” organs, the Interchange Association, Japan, and the Association of East Asian Relations.

Also, senior officials of government bodies like the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Ministry of Defense refrain from contacts with Taiwan, as do politicians in important posts. These and many other unwritten rules have been established over the four decades since the normalization of Japan’s relations with mainland China. But now the relationship between Taiwan and the mainland has changed greatly, to the point where they were even able to hold a bilateral summit. It seems to me that Japan should respond to this major change.

Other countries have taken sensitive moves. The organ that functions in lieu of a Japanese embassy in Taiwan is the Taipei office of the Interchange Association, Japan, and the director of this office serves in lieu of an ambassador. But South Korea’s de facto embassy is called the “Korean Mission in Taipei,” and its head is titled “representative.” Given the progress in cross-strait relations, Japan could well ease the level of the restraint that it has shown in consideration for Beijing in areas like this.

Though the November 2015 summit may not produce any immediate changes on the international political or security fronts, it does seem to present an important occasion for making administrative adjustments of this sort. In the current era of Xi Jinping and Ma Ying-jeou, leaders who have held a cross-strait summit, surely we need not be bound by all the rules from the era of Mao Zedong and Chiang Kai-shek. Japan can view the summit as offering an opportunity to upgrade or at least reexamine its own relationship with Taiwan.

(Originally written in Japanese on December 9, 2015.)

  • [2015.12.25]

Editor in chief of Nippon.com, professor of international relations at the University of Tokyo, and senior researcher at the Institute for International Policy Studies. Born in Tokyo in 1968. Graduated in 1992 from the Tokyo University of Foreign Studies, where he majored in Chinese area studies. Received his PhD in history from the University of Tokyo. Previously an associate professor at Hokkaidō University. Author of Chūgoku kindai gaikō no keisei (The Formation of China’s Modern Foreign Policy), Kindai kokka e no mosaku 1894–1925 (Moves Toward a Modern State, 1894–1925), and other works.

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