Leaders of China and Taiwan met for the first time since 1949 when the Kuomintang (KMT) government was driven out of the mainland by the Communists. This historical meeting marks a special occasion for the Chinese people as this could be a sign of stronger friendship and better prospects for reunification.
The Meeting in Singapore
Xi Jinping’s and Ma Ying-Jeou’s handshake, which lasted around 80 seconds, will go down in the history of cross strait relations. The meeting was handled delicately; the leaders addressed each other as ‘Mister’ to avoid political faux pas.
“Both sides should respect each other’s values and way of life,” Ma commented.
The meeting was short; Ma proposed to have reduced hostility and both sides have agreed to set up a cross-strait hotline to improve communications as per agreement to the 1992 consensus where China and Taiwan acknowledge the One China policy in their own ways.
The “One China policy” means there is only one state called China. China does not recognise Taiwan as a country but sees it as a renegade province which should be under Chinese jurisdiction. Beijing’s desire for reunification can be summed up in Xi’s words:
“We are one family and no force can pull us apart.”
The meeting is two months away from elections in Taiwan; why the talks have been called remains unclear. Perhaps it is Ma’s attempt to lock in some more trade deals before his likely exit from the elections. Taiwan’s economy has slumped for the first time since the global financial crisis.
Ma’s approval ratings have dropped not because of his seemingly pro-reunification stances. But, it is dissatisfaction with Ma’s overall performance as a leader, such as his handling of the Taipei Dome project. The Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) is tipped to win the elections; they will not follow the footsteps of their previous party leader, Chen Shui-Bian, but have pledged to strengthen cross strait relations.
The “Taiwan issue”
China claims Taiwan has been a part of its territory since the Ming dynasty. Japan seized control of the island when the Qing Government was dismally defeated in the first Sino-Japanese War (1894-1895). Beijing was forced to sign the Shimonoseki Treaty, which mandated China to relinquish its territories like Taiwan and “together with all the islands appertaining or belonging to the said island of Taiwan”, which include the Diaoyu (Senkaku Islands) and Penghu Islands (known as Pescadores Islands).
When Japan surrendered in World War Two, Tokyo ceded all territories it took from China under the Potsdam Agreement. The Chinese Civil War resumed; which had started in 1927 but was put on halt due to Japanese invasion. The struggle was between the ruling KMT government, led by Chiang Kai-Shek, and the Communist Party, led by Mao Zedong. In 1949, Chiang fled with 1 million KMT supporters to Taiwan, and declared Taiwan as Republic of China (ROC), while the Communists renamed the mainland as People’s Republic of China (PRC). Hence there are two governments claiming themselves to be “China”.
Cross strait relations
Cross strait relations have been rocky. The Third Taiwan Strait Crisis in 1995-1996 was a clear indication of China using hard-line tactics to intimidate Taiwan. Taiwan’s former leader, Chen Shui-Bian, was a staunch supporter of Taiwanese independence which upset Beijing. But Cross strait relations steadily improved under Ma’s governance. Unlike Chen, he used a more pragmatic approach to build better relations. Both sides opened trade agreements like:
- The Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement (ECFA) which was signed in 2010. The deal cuts tariffs on 539 Taiwanese products entering China and 267 Chinese products exporting into Taiwan
- The “Three Links”, which opened up postal, transportation and trade between China and Taiwan
Ma’s decisions have substantially improved Taiwan’s economy. Chinese tourists and exchange students have poured into Taiwan, while Taiwanese businesses flourished in China.
What’s the China-Taiwan divide?
Taiwan does not deny they share cultural similarities with the mainland; ninety eight percent of Taiwan’s population is ethnic Han Chinese; they speak Mandarin and use the same writing system. But Taiwan declares they have a separate political identity. Namely, the island has a democratic voting system which China lacks. According to a survey by National Chengchi University, 60.6% refer themselves as “Taiwanese”, rather than “Chinese”.
China building up its military capacity has been a source of concern for Taiwan. According to Taipei Times, in 2012 China’s Second Artillery Corps increased from 1,400 ballistic and cruise missiles to 1,600 which are directed to Taiwan.
The South China Sea issue was not discussed in the meeting, but Beijing’s recently constructed artificial islands in the area has caused uproar across the region. Lastly, the complex issue of who owns the Diaoyu and Penghu Islands in the East China Sea continues to be a thorn to China-Taiwan relations.
Economics determinism is the main tie between China and Taiwan thus far, and it seems geopolitics will continue to rouse suspicions from both sides. So this leaves many to wonder what the purpose of the meeting was. But, at least to the eyes of many citizens in China and Taiwan, this was an opportunity to inspire unity and closeness which is a strong part of Chinese history and culture.