Mixed Signals from Beijing: Taking the Recent Xi-Ma Meeting with Plenty of Salt
After 66 years of ups and downs in tensions between the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and the Republic of China (ROC), the leaders from the two sides of the Taiwan Strait finally met and shook hands this year. On the back of a hot-and-cold history of arms buildups, cross-Strait commercial flights, mutual non-recognition, and finally mutual non-denial, General Secretary of the Communist Party of China (CPC) Xi Jinping and President of the Republic of China Ma Ying-jeou met in Singapore on November 7th to discuss the state of cross-Strait relations.
International appraisal of this historic meeting was heard across the world. And both state news media sites in China and Taiwan had headlines speaking of peace, in one fashion or another.
However, the outcome of the very meeting — apart from the first shaking of the hands between the two formerly opposing party leaders from the Chinese Civil War — fell relatively flat. The meeting, albeit historic and precedent-setting, had little new come from it. Representatives of Xi reiterated four points to Ma: the adherence to the 1992 consensus, the development of cross-Strait peace, the expansion of prosperity, and the cooperative pursuit of the Chinese renaissance. Ma, in turn, told Xi of his wishes to consolidate the 1992 consensus, reduce tension through peaceful means, increase win-win economic agreements, establish an emergency communications hotline, and cooperatively revitalize the Chinese culture.1
This 1992 consensus, whose tenets both sides decided to maintain, was the work of representatives in 1992 who had agreed to disagree on the most central question in cross-Strait relations: what constitutes “China”? Through this consensus, the ruling party of Taiwan, the Kuomintang (KMT), had agreed with the CPC that there was “one China”. As to what this “one China” exactly entailed was left up to interpretation (i.e. whether the ROC or the PRC controlled both the Mainland and the island of Taiwan).2 Looking past the semantics, it becomes clear that, through reiterating the 1992 consensus, the recent meeting only solidified the status quo of maintaining cultural unity.
In analyzing recent actions taken by the Xi-Li Administration, however, the general conclusion the Taiwanese and their allies must come to from this type of meeting is that no action from Beijing should be taken at face value. The CPC’s history of shadowy policies and mixed signals has long left Taiwan and the West guessing the underlying intentions of its actions.
For instance, in September 2014, Xi preached about a more “one country, two systems” model for reunification.3 Yet, a year and a month later, Xi met with President Ma only to repeat his original rhetoric of the 1992 consensus — a 180-degree change of his original policy. This quick flip-flop and inconsistency of rhetoric and policy goals represent the diverse forms of distrust many Taiwanese citizens feel regarding Chinese policies. The short time between these two differing position predicates what many pro-independence Taiwanese believe is truly at play on the macro-scale, namely that this month’s Xi-Ma meeting was simply a move by Beijing to calm Taiwanese fears of total Chinese regional hegemony.
Confusion as to what Beijing’s goal is from reiterating the 1992 consensus is further complicated when attempting to analyze recent policy projects taken by the Xi-Li Administration. On one hand, the Party’s recent announcement of a switch to a two-child policy and its announcement to introduce a cap-and-trade system to limit carbon emissions have indicated to the West that the Administration, which has been in power since 2012, is ready to work more progressively with regards to both domestic and international policies.4 5 However, on the other hand, the CPC has also shown its more aggressive and repressive sides in tightening control over social media and silencing dissenters in academia, its attempts to reform Hong Kong’s electoral system — clearly violating the “one country, two systems” principle modern Hong Kong and Macau were founded on — and, most importantly, its recent militarization and artificial island-building in the South China Sea.6 7 8
The recent Chinese military buildup and increase in tensions in the South China Sea can be used to explain China’s actions in calling a meeting with Ma. By reiterating the status quo, Xi made an attempt to dissuade Ma from hastily reacting to China’s militaristic policies in the region. China’s interests in securing ease of access and sealanes in the strategic South China Sea are sufficient reasons for China to try to calm Taiwan’s call for independence, so that China can continue to assert its dominance to become a regional hegemon. As it rapidly builds entire islands equipped with ports, military buildings, and airstrips, China wants to show as much military might as possible without igniting conflict with Taiwan, whose own interests lie in maintaining a presence in the Sea. Taiwan, like the six other claimants of sections of the Sea, has interests in occupying islands of the region in order to acquire fishing rights, to extract oil and natural gas, and to strategically control shipping lanes in the waters, in which it already occupies the Zhongzhou Reef and Taiping Island, the largest of the naturally occurring Spratly Islands.
The fact that the topic of international security in the South China Sea was not once mentioned at the meeting could also suggest that China used this conference to distract Taiwan from Taiwan’s security interests in the ongoing territorial disputes in the Sea.
These darker, more Cold War-esque policies enacted by China in the South China Sea should not be neglected by Taiwan and its allies. For fear of forceful reunification, the ROC must not be blinded by the initial joy of a promised peaceful future with the Mainland as exhibited by the recent Xi-Ma meeting. Instead, policymakers and analysts in Taiwan must beware the actions of their giant cousin across the Strait. They must analyze under close scrutiny each and every action the CPC enacts, questioning the possible hidden motivations for their actions.
In relations as sensitive as Chinese-Taiwanese relations, a balance between optimism and skepticism must be reached. Yes, pacifists around the world might rejoice that there currently appears to be little hostilities between the two previously bitter rivals. However, it is also critical to look at the Xi-Ma meeting through a cynical lens, questioning Xi’s regurgitation of a rather dull consensus from 23 years ago while simultaneously making aggressive, militaristic moves just 500 miles to China’s south. In other words, Taiwan, the US, and other Taiwanese allies must take Chinese olive branches with a grain of salt, lest Chinese advances in the South China Sea and elsewhere slip under the radar.
1 Chiao, Yuan-Ming. “Cross-strait Leaders Meet after 66 Years of Separation.” China Post. The China Post, 7 Nov. 2015. Web. 16 Nov. 2015.
2 Taipei Economic and Cultural Office in Canada. “The 1992 Consensus: Foundation for Cross-Strait Peace and Stronger International Links.” Taiwan. Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Republic of China (Taiwan), 7 Sept. 2011. Web. 16 Nov. 2015.
3 Jie, Jiang. “Xi Clarifies Taiwan Reunification Position to Visiting Delegation.” Global Times. Global Times, 28 Sept. 2014. Web. 16 Nov. 2015.
4 Buckley, Chris. “China Ends One-Child Policy, Allowing Families Two Children.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 29 Oct. 2015. Web. 16 Nov. 2015.
5 Davis, Julie Hirschfeld, and Coral Davenport. “China to Announce Cap-and-Trade Program to Limit Emissions.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 24 Sept. 2015. Web. 16 Nov. 2015.
6 FlorCruz, Jaime A. “China’s reforms: Enlarging but not discarding the cage.” CNN. Cable News Network, 20 Nov. 2013. Web. 16 Nov. 2015.
7 Forsythe, Michael. “With Beijing’s Voting Plan Dead, Hong Kong Looks for Way Forward.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 25 June 2015. Web. 16 Nov. 2015.
8 Watkins, Derek. “What China Has Been Building in the South China Sea.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 30 July 2015. Web. 16 Nov. 2015.