Wariness, accusations surround this weekend's China-Taiwan summit

First leaders' meeting since 1940s civil war sparks fears about China's intentions toward democratic, self-ruled Taiwan

The leaders of Taiwan and China will meet on Saturday for the first time since the two sides split amid civil war in 1949, and the historic summit has heightened anxieties about Beijing's intentions toward the democratic, self-ruled island — which China considers its own territory — as a pro-independence party looks set to dominate upcoming elections in Taiwan.

The scheduled meeting in Singapore, between Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou and his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping, is widely seen as the culmination of Ma’s years spent trying to foster closer China relations. Since taking office in 2008, Ma has signed a series of cooperation agreements with Beijing that have boosted trade and investment, but have also drawn accusations that Ma was selling out Taiwan and its de facto independence. Ma’s warmth toward China has made him unpopular with an increasingly anti-Beijing electorate, but Ma — who must step down after the January vote following his maximum two terms in office — is widely seen as wanting to end on a diplomatic high note by taking a significant step toward lasting peace, for the sake of his legacy.

But many critics see the suddenly announced decision to meet as a cynical move by Beijing to manipulate Ma and sway the Taiwanese vote. Ma’s China-friendly Kuomintang (KMT) party is polling about 20 points behind the independence-leaning Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) ahead of elections scheduled for January. Some believe Xi’s apparently conciliatory agreement to meet Ma will help reassure voters of China’s commitment to dialogue and peace, thus boosting the KMT’s election prospects.

In Taiwan, “the reaction in many circles so far has been one of shock and derision, with the view that this is a naked attempt by Beijing and Ma to influence the elections,” said J. Michael Cole, a Taipei-based Senior Fellow with the University of Nottingham's China Policy Institute. “It certainly encourages the view, in some circles, that Ma cannot be trusted, that he is ‘in bed’ with the CCP,” Xi’s ruling Chinese Communist Party.

Ma said on Thursday the meeting is "not about an election," but rather "is based on the consideration of the happiness of the next generation." His office had previously stated that the meeting is meant to “consolidate cross-Strait peace and maintain the status quo,” meaning the island’s de facto but unacknowledged independence. Much of Taiwan’s electorate prefers the status quo to either a dangerous formal declaration of independence, or to unification with communist China. 

Ma's opponents in Taiwan’s DPP, a party that officially supports the status quo but also includes a significant pro-independence contingent, have jumped at the chance to emphasize their KMT rivals’ closeness to China — an increasingly unpopular position among Taiwanese voters. Scores of demonstrators protested outside Taiwan’s parliament hours after the Singapore meeting was announced. Anti-China protests have erupted in the past over Ma’s bilateral trade agreements, which many say will give Beijing leverage in Taiwanese politics.

“For President Ma to announce his meeting with President Xi only a few days prior to their meeting, and so close to election day … the public is bound to be hesitant and skeptical of the purpose of such a meeting,” Ketty Chen, a Taiwanese political analyst who now serves as senior deputy director for the DPP’s Department of International Affairs, told Al Jazeera.

But many analysts said Saturday’s meeting is not necessarily about the election. Over the years, many Taiwanese voters have come to feel less threatened by the military giant across the 100-mile-wide Taiwan Strait, and are now more concerned with domestic issues like the economy and health care. Ho-Fung Hung, a professor at Johns Hopkins University, said this meeting is more “symbolic” for Xi. The Chinese president is trying “to create an atmosphere and momentum for further cross-Strait integration, and to establish momentum so that even after the government changes, it will be more difficult for the DPP to undo.”

Others saw the meeting in the context of China’s increasingly militaristic moves to enforce its disputed offshore territorial claims, which largely center on the rich fishing grounds and possible mineral reserves near the South China Sea’s mostly unpopulated Spratly Islands. The United States has been fiercely critical of what it calls China’s “aggression” in building artificial islands in disputed parts of the South China Sea. The U.S. last week sent a guided missile destroyer through China’s claimed territory near its man-made islands in the Spratlys. Xi may be working to soften China’s image, framing his legacy as one of peacemaker — not troublemaker — in the region.

Despite tense relations with China, the Taiwanese government has also occasionally backed Beijing when its territorial claims are disputed by other countries such as the Philippines, Vietnam and Japan. In Singapore, “Xi may be interested in soliciting Taiwan’s support” on this wider regional issue, Hung said.

The U.S., which doesn’t support Taiwanese independence but is technically obligated under the Taiwan Relations Act to defend the island if it comes under attack, has responded to the planned meeting with a noncommittal statement. White House spokesman Josh Earnest said that it was too early to declare the meeting a turning point, but that the U.S. would “certainly welcome steps that are taken on both sides of the Taiwan Strait to try to reduce tensions and improve cross-strait relations.” 

Whatever its motivation, the Singapore meeting fits a pattern of subtle Chinese diplomacy vis-à-vis its neighbors. Beijing has learned the hard way that overt intervention in Taiwanese politics can backfire horribly. During the Taiwanese presidential election of 1996, China’s then-President Jiang Zemin ordered missile tests and war games in the waters around Taiwan in a brazen attempt to intimidate voters into not voting for Lee Teng-hui, the more pro-independence candidate. Instead, the militaristic posturing nearly triggered a conflict that could have drawn in the U.S. — and Lee was elected in a landslide.

“The eleventh-hour move [this week] suggests that Beijing wants to do something to shake things up a bit, but that it also realizes that its options are rather limited,” said Cole, the Taipei-based analyst. Its “great power status” means that “China today needs to be more subtle and may be limited to highly symbolic moves as it tries to shape the environment in its favor.”

Dean Visser contributed reporting.

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