Taiwan’s President Caves In to China
TAIPEI, Taiwan — The “historic” meeting that is to take place in Singapore on Saturday between the leaders of China and Taiwan is nothing to cheer about. There will be no progress in terms of peace and reconciliation. The world will witness nothing but politics at its most cynical.
This is to be expected of the president of China, Xi Jinping, who has put the world into a swoon with his economic diplomacy while persecuting dissent and freedom of speech at home, systematically arresting human-rights lawyers and parading a Stalinesque purge of his political enemies as a crackdown on corruption. In this sense, he might even be excused for pretending to make history. It is simply his job, and he is answerable to no one.
Taiwan’s elected president, Ma Ying-jeou, on the other hand, cannot be excused. Unlike Mr. Xi, he is accountable to the people of Taiwan who elected him.
Relations between China and Taiwan have been tense since 1949 when Chiang Kai-shek lost a civil war to Mao Zedong’s Communist forces and retreated to the island with his troops. Beijing considers Taiwan a breakaway province, while Taiwanese views of the mainland have evolved over the decades. Mr. Ma was elected in 2008 after a campaign calling for more trade and warmer relations with the mainland, but the sense now is that he’s gone too far.
In the run-up to the 2012 elections that ushered him into his second and last term as president, Mr. Ma said there was “no way” he would meet with the leadership of China. The Taiwanese are rightfully anxious about the economic and military rise of China and have given up on finding any common ground for discussion with China on Beijing’s primary — in fact, only — goal: reunification.
Why then, just two months ahead of presidential and legislative elections, would Mr. Ma backtrack and agree to dine with the one man who presents the greatest threat to Taiwan’s democratic and open society?
The answer is simple. Mr. Ma knows that his party, the Kuomintang, or KMT, is very likely to not only lose the presidency on Jan. 16, but also, in a historical first, lose control of Parliament, putting power in the hands of politicians better attuned to voters’ anti-reunification sentiments. Both Mr. Ma and his counterpart in China are desperate to make a last-minute deal that would give the KMT a fighting chance to retain its grip on Taiwan’s legislature.
It is not wild speculation to conclude that the only circumstances under which the meeting between Mr. Ma and Mr. Xi could possibly have come about is one in which Mr. Xi offers a concession to Taiwan’s departing president in the hope that it leads to continued KMT control of Taiwan.
If Mr. Ma and Mr. Xi were particularly smart — and recent history provides no guarantee of that — they may have agreed that Mr. Xi will make a grand gesture, such as an offer to withdraw the missiles that currently threaten Taiwan, in return for a continuation of the status quo with movement toward closer relations. The logic would be that a grand gesture like this would resonate with a nervous Taiwan electorate and could even reshape the electoral landscape.
Alternatively, Mr. Xi might offer Taiwan even closer economic ties and a role in China’s Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, which so far has been denied Taiwan. But this would fail and only push the Taiwanese electorate further into the camp of the opposition Democratic Progressive Party, which holds a strong lead in polls.
The Taiwanese have increasingly come to see closer economic ties with China as a threat to their political and cultural autonomy. In fact, it has been Mr. Ma’s attempts at economic rapprochement with China that have largely led to disaffection with not only the KMT but the entire political process in Taiwan. This has been a significant factor in the rise of independent parties, student protests and increased identity politics.
But let us imagine that the two leaders make the smartest of possible moves, and Mr. Xi offers Taiwan a concession — such as removal of the missiles just across the narrow Taiwan Strait — that wins the KMT some of those elusive parliamentary seats.
It would be a victory for Mr. Xi and for Mr. Ma — particularly if the KMT were able to hold on to Parliament. The presidential duo could package it to the international community as a major stride toward peace and reconciliation. Western columnists would rub their hands in glee and write in adulatory terms of China and Taiwan’s push for peace in a strife-riddled world.
Nevertheless, the truth will remain that whatever happens on Saturday in Singapore is nothing more than cynical politics — cynical politics that come at a huge cost for Taiwan. The reason: for the first time since the Chinese Communist Party took power in 1949, one of its leaders will have become a broker in Taiwan’s electoral process.
This is not something that China’s leadership has earned. It is a position the Chinese have bullied their way into. Meanwhile, Mr. Ma has betrayed his voters by joining forces with the greatest threat to their sovereignty — and purely for political gain.
Originally published at mobile.nytimes.com on November 6, 2015.