Xi-Ma Meeting to Bolster China's Territorial Claims

The widespread feeling in Taipei is that the unprecedented Singapore meeting on Nov. 7 between Chinese leader Xi Jinping and Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou may be an election ploy that won’t have much effect saving the disastrous election campaign of the flagging Kuomintang Party for the Jan. 16,2016 polls. But it may be more important in winning an ally against the Philippines’ suit at the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) in The Hague, which ruled last week that the court has jurisdiction in ruling who owns islets in the South China Sea. It was the Kuomintang who wrote the original map that China uses to claim almost all of the sea.

In any case, Xi will be writing history in Singapore’s Shangri-La Hotel by meeting with Ma, whose China-friendly policies at home are much criticized for enriching tycoons at the expense of ordinary citizens. It is widely seen in the context of Taiwan’s next presidential and legislative elections. Ma’s long-time nemesis, Tsai Ing-wen of the independence-leaning Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), is expected to trounce Eric Chu, Kuomintang chairman and presidential contender, by a wide margin. The Xi-Ma meeting is thus regarded as obviously aiming to prevent the near-inevitable – a changer of power in Taiwan to the grave detriment of China’s unification agenda.

China observers don’t think the maneuver will work. “Xi must somehow think, not having learned from Zhu Rongji’s mistake in 2000, that Taiwanese voters might actually care what he thinks and/or whom he likes. Guess what? They don’t, now, even less than ever,” said Sean King, vice president of the New York-based Park Strategies.

Numerous voices have come out against the meeting including the mayor of Taipei, an independent, and the DPP, which pointed to Ma’s statement last year in which he said he wouldn’t meet with Xi until such time as it is “needed by the country, is supported by its people, and with the approval of the legislature.” The DPP is calling for more transparency on the details of the meeting, charging that it was arranged in secret.

“The meeting was probably agreed to give the KMT a boost, but I doubt it will have much of an impact in helping the KMT or Eric Chu, who is not even publicly celebrating,” said Steve Tsang, Senior Fellow at the University of Nottingham’s China Policy Institute. “Voters will balance between wanting better relations with the mainland, which most want, and allowing the mainland to start a political process towards unification, which most reject in Taiwan; if Ma does not come out of the meeting smelling of roses, it will backfire on the KMT,” he added. The disorganized Kuomintang abandoned its first presidential candidate, the sharp-tongued Hung Hsiu-chu, the party’s vice president, in favor of Eric Chu, a longtime party apparatchik, after party leaders decided she couldn’t win.

It is a meeting that will be cloaked in the strategic ambiguity that has governed the antagonists for two decades. According to official rhetoric from both sides, the meeting will not only be historic but also significant for further institutionalization of cross-Strait relations although both sides have stressed that the meeting won’t culminate in the signing of any agreements or joint statements, an indication of its political nature. It has been stressed that the leaders are willing to meet on an “equal footing” and shelve political disagreements on such issues as political status, i.e., who is subordinate to whom, and concerns over titles, with the two calling each other “Mr.” instead of using official titles.

The meeting is also meant to demonstrate the goodwill and flexibility of both governments, which would create a precedent if future Taiwan leaders don’t deviate from the political arrangement set up by the Chinese Communist Party and the Kuomintang over the past some 20 years, including the “1992 consensus,” which states that both China and Taiwan belong to China, with each side giving their own interpretation of whether China is Beijing’s People’s Republic of China or Taipei’s Republic of China.

The DPP’s Tsai rejects the notion that Taiwan belongs to China, suggesting that whatever is agreed by Xi and Ma in Singapore won’t be implemented if Tsai wins the presidency.

“It’s a landmark event, but not a historic one and not really a breakthrough in terms of the fundamentals that govern cross-Strait relations,” said Steve Tang. “If Tsai should win the presidency in January, it is highly questionable that Xi will treat Tsai on the same basis and meet her in Singapore on the same basis, so momentum cannot be sustained, if any momentum were built in the Ma-Xi meeting.”

Even if Chu wins the presidency – “a long shot at the moment,” given that he trails Tsai by 30 percent in the polls – he is unlikely to put himself in the same position as Ma now, Tsang added.

Chen In-Chin, a professor at Taiwan's National Central University's Graduate Institute of Law and Government, pointed out that Xi’s agreement to meet Ma now has not only to do with the Taiwan elections but also with the decision by Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) in The Hague, much to China’s dismay, that it has jurisdiction over issues raised by the Philippines against China's so-called “9-dash line” in the South China Sea. The “9-dash line” is based on KMT maps from the 1940s.

“Taiwan’s foreign ministry, which used to issue only relatively vague statements on Taiwan’s claims in the South China Sea, surprised by swiftly and vehemently rejecting the PCA’s jurisdiction,” said Chen. “This change in rhetoric came days prior to the announcement of the Xi-Ma meeting and messed up US and Japanese policymaking considerably ahead of the APEC meeting in Manila later this month.”

Chen added without Taiwan now insisting on its “9-dash line” and thereby lending considerable support to China’s territorial claims over the entire South China Sea, China would have been in a gravely isolated position at APEC. “But instead it is the US, Japan and the Philippines that will be going into the APEC meeting with a headache,” he said.

Postings on China’s Facebook equivalent Weibo strongly suggest that the Chinese populace is enthusiastic about the Xi-Ma meeting. Chen believes that nationalist sentiment is being boosted by it to the benefit of Xi’s domestic standing.

Jens Kastner is a freelance writer based in Taiwan.