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The summit and the election

Interview: Gabriel DomínguezNovember 4, 2015

As the leaders of China and Taiwan prepare to meet for the first time since 1949, DW speaks to MERICS expert Nabil Alsabah about the timing of the meeting and the impact it may have on the upcoming presidential poll.

Wahlen in Taiwan 29.11.2014
Image: Reuters/P.Chuang

This Saturday's meeting in Singapore between Chinese President Xi Jinping and his counterpart in neighboring Taiwan, Ma Ying-jeou, will be the first between leaders from the two rivals since the Chinese civil war ended 66 years ago.

Under President Ma, who will step down next year due to term limits, Taiwan has sought closer economic ties with Beijing. But while the talks may reflect an improvement in relations between the former Cold War foes, they also come amid growing anti-Chinese sentiment on the island.

In fact, as Taiwan prepares to hold a presidential election in January, many believe that a win by frontrunner Tsai Ing-wen of the opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) - which traditionally favors independence - may mark a shift in the island's policy towards Beijing. Communist China views democratic Taiwan as a breakaway province and has threatened to take it back, if necessary by force, should it officially declare independence.

In a DW interview, Nabil Alsabah, a China expert at the Germany-based Mercator Institute for China Studies (MERICS) talks about why he believes Beijing agreed to the meeting, what both sides intend to achieve, and how the meeting could affect the ongoing presidential campaign in Taiwan.

Nabil Alsabah China Experte
Alsabah: 'The upcoming presidential election in Taiwan might have pressured the mainland-Chinese leadership to take a bold move'Image: Jan Siefke/MERICS

DW: This is the first meeting between the leaders of the two sides since 1949. Why did China agree to this meeting now?

Nabil Alsabah: One of the biggest obstacles to meetings on this level has always been the question of official capacity. The Taiwanese side insisted on referring to Ma as "President of the Republic of China." This was, of course, unacceptable for the mainland Chinese side.

The Asia-Pacific Economic Co-operation (APEC) meeting held in Beijing in November 2014 presented an opportunity to bypass this issue altogether. Since members are treated as economies and not as countries, Ma could have met Xi as a representative of the Taiwanese economy.

Yet the mainland authorities demurred as they are very sensitive when it comes to defining Taiwan's status. They are always careful not to convey the impression of equal status.

Yet the upcoming presidential election in Taiwan might have pressured the mainland-Chinese leadership to take a bold move. Recent opinion polls put the DPP's Tsai Ing-wen 20 percentage points ahead of the Kuomintang's candidate, Eric Chu. Since the DPP leans toward loosening Taiwan's economic dependence on the mainland, leaders in Beijing might have decided to throw caution to the wind.

In the meantime, the very sensitive issue of official capacity has been resolved pragmatically: Both leaders will be referred to as Mr. - Mr. Xi and Mr. Ma.

What do both sides intend to achieve by agreeing to this meeting?

Official statements from both sides highlighted the mutual goals of promoting cross-strait peace and economic cooperation. The Taiwanese side emphasized, as usual, its long-standing aim of maintaining the status quo.

Yet the meeting can also be interpreted as a desperate move by both the Chinese Communist Party and the Kuomintang to change the dynamics of the upcoming election. Should Tsai Ing-wen end up replacing Ma Ying-jeou as president, cross-strait relations could be heading for an unknown future.

Furthermore, we should also keep in mind that achieving a historic rapprochement with the mainland has always been a defining theme of Ma's presidency.

We should never underestimate the importance political leaders attach to securing their place in history. Should the meeting on Saturday be the first in many to come, it could become a "milestone" that will always be associated with Ma Ying-jeou's name.

Taiwanischer Präsident Ma Ying Jeou und chinesischer Präsident Xi Jinping
The Xi-Ma meeting can also be interpreted as a desperate move by both the Chinese Communist Party and the Kuomintang to change the dynamics of the upcoming election, says AlsabahImage: picture-alliance/dpa

To which extent will the meeting influence the general mood in the Taiwanese population?

Critics on Taiwanese social media were quick to renounce Ma's initiative as an act of national betrayal. Taiwanese newspapers differed in assessing the Xi-Ma meeting according to their political allegiance.

Unsurprisingly, pro-DPP media outlets, like the Liberty Times, condemned Ma's decision. Kuomintang-supporting newspapers, like the United Daily News, applauded the "strategic importance" of the upcoming meeting.

The Taiwanese people are usually hyper-sensitive when it comes to mainland China. For example, passionate protests broke out last year against a services-trade agreement aimed at liberalizing the investment regime in both economies.

I remember talking to protesters and supporters, students and workers alike, in places as diverse as Taipei in the north and Kaohsiung in the south. I was struck by the sense of moral righteousness on both sides. Rational arguments did not count for much. And conspiracy theories abounded.

Emotions and passions remain, unfortunately, a highly underestimated force in the academic discourse. Yet for the Taiwanese, the cross-strait relationship is a coin with two sides.

There is first the question of identity: Are we Chinese or Taiwanese? And there is also the question of the economy: Will we be better off with a closer or a looser relationship to the mainland. The assessment of the latter is often influenced by the former.

Taiwan Opposition Tsai Ing-wen
Should the DPP candidate Tsai Ing-wen win the presidential race, cross-strait relations could be heading for an unknown future, says AlsabahImage: picture-alliance/AP/W. Santana

How is the meeting between the two leaders likely to impact Taiwan's ongoing presidential campaign?

Ma Ying-jeou's gamble is simple: Force the DPP to spell out their position! Until now, Tsai Ing-wen has remained deliberately vague on the issue of cross-strait relations.

Her electoral strategy seeks to reach out to a grand coalition of people, including those who resent mainland China yet see the economic importance of having good relations as well as those who support rapprochement with the mainland, but are worried about its fast pace.

In the final analysis, it remains unclear what effect, if any, the meeting will have on the election dynamics. Taiwanese politics are often discussed within the confinement of unification and independence. Yet, in the end, the majority of the Taiwanese people remains committed to maintaining the status quo.

How do you think the meeting will be viewed by Taiwan's ally, the United States?

Conventional wisdom among experts in international relations suggests that the Americans should be dismayed by the Xi-Ma meeting.

Yet, if we take a closer look at the US' much celebrated (or, reviled) pivot to Asia, we see clearly that Taiwan almost does not feature at all in this strategy. In Washington, there is also a talk among some influential academics of accepting reality, "abandoning" Taiwan and living with a reunified China.

For now, I think we should not expect too much from the summit. Chen Yi-hsin, Ma Ying-jeou's spokesman, emphasized that no agreement will be signed and no joint statement will be issued.

We should also remember that back in April 2005, the then General-Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party, Hu Jintao, and the then Kuomintang Chairman, Lien Chan, met in their capacities as party leaders.

It was also the first such meeting in 60 years since Mao Zedong and Chiang Kai-shek convened for a doomed peace summit in Chongqing. Neither meeting changed much on the ground.

Asked about how the US government views the upcoming summit, White House spokesman Josh Earnest said the United States was in favor of any measures to reduce tensions. He moved on to note that it was too early to call the meeting a "turning point." He might be just right.

Nabil Alsabah is a China expert and research associate at the Germany-based Mercator Institute for China Studies (MERICS).