The handshake was long, 82 seconds, almost awkwardly so, and the smiles were stretched too, for the cameras. On Nov. 7, on the neutral and friendly ground of Singapore, Xi Jinping, President of China and general secretary of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), and Ma Ying-jeou, President of Taiwan and representative of the Chinese Nationalist Party or Kuomintang (KMT), held a brief but historic summit. Big authoritarian superpower engaged small young democracy.[i]
The event and its possible reasons have been exhaustively debated the world over. Many possible explanations have been offered. It is widely expected that the KMT will lose to DPP in the Jan 16 elections in Taiwan. The DPP is known for its hard-line stance against mainland China, unlike the KMT. Thus perhaps this summit was possible only in the limited window available before the Taiwanese elections and the opportunity was seized by both sides, more so by PRC. Once DPP came to power, as is expected, the window for the summit may have closed for some time.
What is it that the summit brings to the table for Xi Jinping or for PRC? The Chinese President was able to emphasize the fact again that the two political systems are supported by a single set of people and that deep cultural and family ties exist. In a manner he appealed to the concept of Greater Chinese Nationalism. He also conveyed that mainland China is not an enemy of Taiwan. While this may not have allayed the fears of the Taiwanese political class wrt Chinese military intentions, the message would have resonated well with the people of both countries. With increasing trade ties there is much greater people to people movement between the mainland and Taiwan and thus better integration. While the Taiwanese would very much like to maintain their independent political identity, they would also on a people to people basis seek greater contact with the mainland and vice versa.
The Taiwanese president would have possibly agreed to the meeting with an eye on the forthcoming elections. By meeting his Chinese counterpart as an equal, he may have conveyed a strong image of himself and his party to the voters. He could assert his independence without being confrontationist with the Chinese. This is a very nuanced stance – and not the totalitarian position which the DPP has adopted. In a manner the Taiwanese also again projected themselves on the world stage, something of which the USA will have to take note of. The position of USA on independence of Taiwan has been rather muted in the past even though they remain committed to underwriting its security concerns. The summit may also have been driven by private desire of President Ma – to shine once before fading into sunset.
Thus both sides gained in their own manner. Cross straits relations are complex at best of the times. Tumultuous events such as this summit can therefore be always interpreted in multiple manners. The above is only one possible explanation.
[i] Zohel Abdoolcarim, TIME 09 Nov 15