The Great Thaw of China: Xi Meets Ma

Today will be remembered in history … Now before our eyes there are fruits of conciliation instead of confrontation,’ says Chinese president Xi Jinping in a historic meeting with Taiwan’s president Ma Ying-jeou.

China’s unprecedented rise to the status of a global powerhouse and its close links to western capitalism mark the centrality of increasing, arguably even irreversible, economic interdependence in an era of rapid globalisation. History is now being rewritten and the misunderstandings between the Communist Party of China (CCP) and its old nemesis the Koumintang (Chinese Nationalist Party or KMT) seem like a thing of the past. It is as if western imperialism had lost and Sun Yat-sen’s historic Three Principles of the People, as propounded by the KMT, had finally come home to become fused with Chairman Mao’s variant of Marxism – quite strongly blended with his powerful and attractive Chinese anti-imperialist narrative of history. Of course, sometimes Sun and Mao agreed. So Beijing and Taipei are finally gravitating towards each other and, as shown by yesterday’s minute-long handshake between Chinese president Xi Jinping and his Taiwanese counterpart Ma Ying-jeou, great gestures of future friendship are being made after almost seven decades of frosty relations. Both sides acknowledge that trade between them as produced “unprecedented prosperity”.

At the historic summit in neutral Singapore yesterday, which symbolises a great thaw in relations, Xi publicly stood together with his Taiwanese counterpart after the landmark minute-long handshake and said: “Nothing can separate us … We are one family … We are brothers who are still connected by our flesh even if our bones are broken.” These are unprecedented developments in the “66-year history of cross-Strait relations despite ordeals and long-term isolation from each other,” said the Chinese state news agency Xinhua and apparently Xi and Ma referred to each other as “mister”. Notably, long years ago, the CPC and the KMT enjoyed a temporary alliance as the United Front during the Second Sino-Japanese War (1937–45). Taipei agrees with Beijing that there is only “one China” but is of the view that the nationalists, and not the communists, are the true political legacy of the Chinese people. 

Yet as is well known, subsequent to Japan’s defeat the civil war in China resumed and communist forces led by Mao 1949 defeated the Chinese nationalists led by Chiang Kai-shek and the latter withdrew to Taiwan. In fact, on October 1, 1949, the People’s Republic of China (PRC), a single-party state controlled by the CPC, was proclaimed by Mao whereas the retreating nationalist forces, supported by western powers, set up the Republic of China (ROC) in Taiwan. The PRC has always pursued a policy of reunification with the ROC, irrespective of whether the west likes it or not. Of course, Beijing has always regarded democratically ruled Taiwan as a renegade province which must be reunited with the mainland. Arguably, by retreating to Taiwan (formerly “Formosa”) after losing the Chinese civil war, the KMT’s nationalists deprived Mao and the communists of an absolute victory and at times historical grievances flared up; these exchanges have been archived by historians as the Taiwan Strait Crises of 1955 and 1995.

However, complimenting Beijing’s newfound openness, Ma, who is the most ardent advocate of closer ties with Chinese communists, reciprocated Xi’s generosity and said that both countries were making string efforts:

to replace conflict with dialogue … we follow different political systems, but we have developed military and economic cooperation.

These big developments, which are likely to displease Washington, come after years of misunderstanding and the last face-to-face meeting between high-ranking Chinese nationalists and communists occurred in August 1945 when seven weeks of talks were held in Chongqing in August 1945 between Mao and Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek. Indeed, Xi and Ma’s sharply choreographed encounter – dubbed “an icebreaking meeting” comparable to Nixon’s 1972 tour of China – is a first of a kind event since the creation of the CCP in 1949.

The summit is a high point in the seven-year rapprochement between Taipei and Beijing that began in 2008 and Xi is clear that his gambit, arguably a risky step, does not amount to recognising Taiwanese independence (which 80 per cent of its population would like to see formally declared without delay). Equally, Ma’s gamble is equally risky as his party’s ratings in the polls are low and less than 10 per cent of the electorate supports it.

Upon taking office Ma Ying-jeou vowed to kill off longstanding political misunderstandings between Beijing and Taipei. Ma, who has made better relations with Beijing a ranking priority, will step down next year after the presidential election on 16 January takes place. However, his pro-Beijing proclivities have made the KMT hugely unpopular and as one can imagine, he faces potent criticism from his political rivals in the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) because of his policy of openness with China. (The DPP looks likely to win the 2016 election and of course president Xi is in touch with its leadership to keep the future dialogue going, but he has made veiled threats about how Beijing would maintain “high vigilance” against “Taiwanese splittists”.)

Ironically, Washington is in fact opposed to the extreme stance adopted by the DPP. Indeed, its candidate for the presidency Tsai Ing-wen, who seems set to replace MA, and her rhetoric that her party will use democracy to reverse the damage caused by the Ma-Xi meeting” may not be as appealing in the US at it might appear at first blush. She regretted that the meeting symbolised an “attempt to limit the people’s ability to choose the future of cross-Strait relations by setting political pre-conditions on the international stage.”

As noted before on this blog, Xi held long talks with president Obama during a recent state visit to Washington in September 2015 where the two leaders discussed global and regional challenges such as Afghanistan, peacekeeping, nuclear security, wildlife trafficking, ocean conservation and strengthening development coordination. They also discussed strengthening bilateral ties turning on themes such as military relations, cyber-security, law enforcement and people-to-people exchange.

The Americans are quite concerned that Tsai Ing-wen will be able to maintain an untroubled relationship with Beijing. China is the world’s largest country and commands seemingly infinite power whereas Taiwan is a small island of 23 million inhabitants and only 22 countries have diplomatic relations with Taipei. Therefore, the US government has welcomed the meeting between Xi and Ma and the US State Department has explained that:

The United States welcomes the meeting between leaders on both sides of the Taiwan Strait and the historic improvement in cross-Strait relations in recent years. The United States has a deep and abiding interest in peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait, and we encourage further progress by both sides toward building ties, reducing tensions, and promoting stability on the basis of dignity and respect. The United States remains committed to our one China policy, based on the Three Joint Communiques and the Taiwan Relations Act.

Held at Singapore’s five-star Shangri-La hotel, the summit in Singapore was announced unexpectedly on Tuesday (3 November 2015) and unlike president Xi’s recent state visits to the UK, Xi and Ma ate a casual dinner at the posh Shang Palace restaurant and reportedly planned to split the bill because of the political sensitivities surrounding their meeting. It is said that the divisions between Taiwan and China run deeper than those between East and West Germany or North and South Korea: Taiwan is proud of its democracy and does not want to be seen cowering to Beijing’s dictatorial form of government. Equally, Xi, who wants closer economic ties and softer political approach, has been accused of giving away too much too easily. The trade figures reveal that China’s imports from Taiwan in 2005 totalled $53 billion and that the value of China’s imports for the year 2015 amount to more than $104.2 billion.

The talks are a part of China’s “charm offensive” in Asia, which aims to reduce regional tensions with neighbouring countries such as Japan, Vietnam and the Philippines. Whilst China is not conceding any claims of its own in the South China Sea, the official Chinese news agency Xinhua emphasised the “new look and feel to China’s diplomacy” and it pithily concluded that:

Never before have China’s leaders been so keen to reach out to the world beyond their borders.

In his seven-minute opening speech, Xi reached out to Ma and said:

Today will be remembered in history. Even though this is the first meeting, we feel like old friends. Behind us is history stretching for 60 years. Now before our eyes there are fruits of conciliation instead of confrontation.

In response, Ma touched upon the “unprecedented prosperity” produced by trade between Beijing and Taipei and used his three-minute speech to proclaim:

The basis behind this huge transformation has come from peace.

However, in relation to the South China Sea where Beijing has ongoing misunderstandings with Washington, it is worth noting that on 29 October 2015 the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) based in The Hague accepted jurisdiction over a case filed by the Philippines under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea 1982 (UNCLOS) and accepted the argument that the complaint filed was about interpreting the law and not about sovereignty. The PCA will rule on many important issues such as artificial islands built by China are entitled to the status enjoyed by habitable natural islands (i.e. 12-nautical mile territorial waters and 200-nautical mile exclusive economic zones pursuant to UNCLOS). However, China has refused to participate in the proceedings and does not recognise the court’s jurisdiction.

As noted before on this blog, in April 2015, under the aegis of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC, see here), China and Pakistan entered into deals for energy and infrastructure projects in Pakistan worth $46 billion, enhancing their economic cooperation.

In April 2015, President Xi Jinping visited Pakistan to sign agreements aimed at establishing the CPEC in Pakistan’s Gwadar port on the Arabian Sea and the western Xinjiang region in China. In light of the CPEC, Washington’s economic activity in Pakistan has been dwarfed by Beijing’s drive to create a “Silk Road” by land and sea to forge deeper ties with South Asian, Middle Eastern and European markets. The CPEC envisages creating a network of roads, railways and pipelines, in Baluchistan province to facilitate trade and economic development.

Similarly, China is also investing in the UK and coverage of president Xi’s recent visit to London is available here. In particular, the fact that Beijing is investing in key British nuclear infrastructure has raised eyebrows in opposition circles in London, as has the expression of Chinese interest in the ailing company Sheffield Forgemasters which manufactures key steel parts such as reactor casings for the British Trident nuclear submarine fleet.

Late last month president Xi also expanded Beijing’s ties with Germany and Chinese and German companies signed far-reaching deals worth tens of billions of dollars on Thursday, 29 October 2015, during German chancellor Angela Merkel’s visit to Beijing.

Posted by Editor.

1 Comment

Filed under China, CPEC, Discussion, Europe, Pakistan, Peace building, Politics

One response to “The Great Thaw of China: Xi Meets Ma

  1. Pingback: PCA: Philippines v China | PIIA Library Blog

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