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Leaders Of China And Taiwan To Meet For First Time In 66 Years

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For the first time in sixty-six years, the leaders of the People’s Republic of China and the Republic of China, the government that descends from the remnants of the Nationalist Chinese government that took refuge on Taiwan in the wake of 1949’s Communist Revolution, will meet in person this weekend. And while expectations for the meeting are muted, the fact that it is taking place at all seems like something that has the potential to be hugely significant:

BEIJING — President Xi Jinping of China, and the leader of Taiwan, Ma Ying-jeou, will meet on Saturday in Singapore, the first such meeting since before the Chinese Communist revolution of 1949 and the retreat of the Chinese Nationalists across the Taiwan Strait.

The office in charge of Taiwan relations in Beijing said in a brief statement that the two leaders would exchange views on promoting development during a long scheduled two-day visit of Mr. Xi to Singapore, a country that has good relations with both sides.

The director of the Taiwan Affairs Office of the State Council, Zhang Zhijun, said the meeting had been arranged “given the situation of the irresolution of cross-strait political differences.”

A spokesman for Mr. Ma, whose Kuomintang, or Nationalist Party, is floundering at the polls before elections early next year, announced the meeting late Tuesday night. Mr. Ma’s spokesman, Charles Chen, said that no agreements were envisioned. The meeting with Mr. Ma fits with the bold style of Mr. Xi, who has shown that he likes to take more risks in foreign policy than his predecessors.

He has sought strong connections with Britain and the Continent as a counterweight to the United States, and met with Myanmar’s opposition leader, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, even though China has traditionally supported the military in Myanmar. Mr. Xi will be arriving in Singapore from a visit to Vietnam, a country ruled by a Communist Party but that has had testy relations with China.

The encounter with Mr. Ma comes after Mr. Xi has pushed China’s regional aspirations to the fore by building artificial islands in the South China Sea and, soon after becoming president, taking a strong anti-Japan stance. The gesture toward Mr. Ma shows a more conciliatory side, one that may not help to pull off a victory for the Kuomintang, which favors closer ties to China, but nonetheless, could be interpreted as not particularly threatening.

The gesture could also produce a backlash, prompting more Taiwanese voters to support the opposition Democratic Progressive Party, which has held a commanding lead in the polls over the past year. Yet even if the Kuomintang does not win the January elections, the meeting could set the groundwork for changes that suit China in the long run, according to Wang Yangjin, a professor of political science at Renmin University of China in Beijing, who specializes in Taiwan-China relations.

“There are very good economic relations between China and Taiwan, but we cannot expect any breakthrough on politics,” said Shi Yinhong, professor of international relations at Renmin University. “If they had met two years ago it would have been quite important politically, but now I don’t think this can produce any substantial political impact.”

Despite the improved ties in recent years, the Chinese government continues to adhere to its long-held policy that Taiwan is a breakaway province and that unification is inevitable — by force if necessary.

Chiang Kai-shek, the Kuomintang leader, and the Communist revolutionary Mao Zedong met in Chongqing, China’s wartime capital, in August 1945.

While lower level representatives of the two sides continued to meet during the civil war, Mao and Chiang never met again, said Xu Guoqi, a professor of history at the University of Hong Kong.

Once established on Taiwan, an island that had been under Japanese control until 1945, the Kuomintang, still under Chiang, maintained itself as the Republic of China and vowed to reconquer the mainland, but its policies toward Beijing have evolved considerably since then. (In 1979, the United States established full diplomatic relations with Beijing, and now only maintains unofficial relations with Taipei.)

Last year, representatives of Taiwan and China met officially for the first time since the revolution. The meeting, held in the Chinese city of Nanjing, produced no major breakthroughs but was seen as the result of Mr. Ma’s efforts to forge closer ties.

Trade has more than doubled during Mr. Ma’s presidency, and Taiwan eased restrictions on Chinese travelers, who have visited the island in large numbers.

On Tuesday evening, the White House welcomed word of the meeting but reserved judgment on its broader meaning.

“We would certainly welcome steps that are taken on both sides of the Taiwan Strait to try to reduce tensions and improve cross-strait relations,” said the White House press secretary Josh Earnest. “We’ll have to see what actually comes out of the meeting.”

Many in Taiwan remain wary of China’s ultimate intentions. Student protesters took over Taiwan’s legislature for nearly a month last year to force reconsideration of a trade in services agreement with China. In local elections last year, the Kuomintang suffered sharp losses, partly over the party’s China policy.

Leaders in Beijing have been cautious about meeting Taiwan officials out of fear of legitimizing the island’s government, which for more than half a century they had sought to isolate.

Some analysts said that although the Kuomintang was doing badly in opinion polls there was an overall sentiment in Taiwan for the status quo with the mainland, and that Mr. Xi could tap into that by showing through the meeting that huge Taiwanese investments in mainland China had helped Taiwan prosper.

Notwithstanding the fact that there has been some cooling of tensions across the strait between the two nations in recent years, the issues between Beijing and Taipai remain as complicated as they always have been, and it’s probably the case that expectations for meetings like this should be set fairly low. It wasn’t very long ago, after all, that the Chinese were using missile tests across the strait and naval flotillas to send the message that, as far as they are concerned, the island of Taiwan is and always has been a part of the People’s Republic, and these positions seem to resonate on the mainland among a population that has become more overly nationalist than they have been in the past. Nationalist sentiment in Taiwan remains as strong as it ever has been as well, and the country continues to beef up its military even though it is apparent that the island could not withstand a full-on onslaught from the People’s Republic if Beijing’s leaders ever decided to go that route without U.S. intervention, which is not necessarily something that Taiwan has ever been able to count on no matter who was in charge in Washington. As noted above, the governing party on the island takes a political risk in a situation like this because it could end up being accused of becoming too close with a regime in Beijing still viewed by most Taiwanese as illegitimate.

For those reason, the meeting on Saturday is likely to be fraught with diplomatic caution:

Xi Jinping has several titles: president of China, general secretary of the Communist Party and sometimes even Dada, a name that is translated as “Uncle” or “Daddy.” When he meets with President Ma Ying-jeou of Taiwan on Saturday in Singapore, he will simply be “Mr.”

So will Mr. Ma.

The two “misters” are among the most significant symbols of the complicated protocol surrounding the historic meeting between the leaders. What the men call each other, what flags or symbols appear and even who reaches out to shake whose hand and how will be parsed for meaning in relations between the two sides.

The protocol questions are not simply name games, but the product of war and decades of mistrust. China claims self-ruled Taiwan as part of its territory and believes it must eventually be united. Chiang Kai-shek, the leader of the Republic of China, fled to Taiwan with his Nationalist forces in 1949 after losing a civil war to Mao’s Communists. The two men met in August 1945 but never met again.

For decades, the two sides called each other “bandits,” each claiming itself as the rightful government of China. Both believed “a legitimate government and a bandit cannot deal with each other face to face,” said Xu Guoqi, a history professor at the University of Hong Kong. “That principle applied in every category.”

 

(…)

Likewise, meetings between representatives from both sides have hit roadblocks over what to call each other. Chinese officials are unwilling to call their counterparts from Taiwan by their official titles out of fear of conferring legitimacy or suggesting Taiwan is a nation.

Mr. Ma and Mr. Xi will use “mister” as a way of shelving the awkward political questions of their titles.

“This is a practical arrangement based on the one-China principle, as the political disagreement across the strait has not been totally resolved,” said Zhang Zhijun, the head of China’s Taiwan Affairs office, according to Xinhua, China’s official news agency. “The arrangement shows the spirit of putting aside disputes and mutual respect.”

When the preparations for a meeting are so concerned about what the people participating should call each other, that’s a sign that we really shouldn’t expect very much to come out Saturday’s meeting in Singapore. Nonetheless, the fact that it is taking place at all, for the first time since Chang Kai-Shek and his supporters escaped from Mao’s armies across the Taiwan Strait, shouldn’t be discounted. At the very least, the fact that the two nations are talking rather than saber-rattling is a positive step forward.

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About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May, 2010 and also writes at Below The Beltway. Follow Doug on Twitter | Facebook

Comments

  1. PACW says:

    Leaders in Beijing have been cautious about meeting Taiwan officials out of fear of legitimizing the island’s government, which for more than half a century they had sought to isolate.

    What sort of nincompoops try to isolate an entire island for over 50 years?

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  2. @PACW:

    I see what you did there.

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  3. stonetools says:

    Hey, maybe China was inspired to change its policy by Obama changing America’s similarly dumb policy toward Cuba. In which case, thanks Obama!

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  4. MarkedMan says:

    The dynamic has changed substantially in the past twenty years for any number of reasons. A very large one is that more and more wealthy mainlanders are buying real estate and businesses in Taiwan and are therefore getting a bigger seat at the table.

    I once flew from Shanghai to Taipai on a mainland Chinese carrier and the inflight magazine was dedicated to Taiwan. A big article was concerned with the island’s “history”. Chasing Kai Shek and the rest were not portrayed as enemies of Mao. Rather both Mao and the nationalists were all part of the same struggle and unfortunately became isolated from each other by the vagaries of war. Isn’t it great that is in the past?

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