IT was heralded as an historic moment, and we think the description is entirely appropriate. The meeting in Singapore on Saturday between Chinese President Xi Jinping and Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou was the first time the heads of state of the two countries have ever met, and even though no agreements were made or long-standing political questions resolved, the brief, carefully choreographed encounter will have a profound impact on the region and the rest of the world.
And even though the meeting can be considered a diplomatic victory for Taiwan’s Ma, it was nothing less than a tour de force for his mainland counterpart. In one brief moment, Xi Jinping cemented his place as the most powerful contemporary leader in this hemisphere, and the most influential leader of China since Mao Zedong. While that reality may not be entirely favorable for the Philippines and other countries with relations with China that are to some degree problematic, we cannot help but be impressed by what Xi accomplished.
Ma’s Kuomintang (KMT) party has long adhered to a policy of seeking better relations with the mainland, and Ma himself has unsuccessfully sought a meeting with the Chinese president for several years. Under the KMT’s administration, engagement between the two sides has been frequent, and according to both sides, generally productive. Taiwan and China both maintain regular communication through committees dedicated to cross-strait affairs, and asymmetrical high-level meetings – Xi has met with several KMT leaders – have taken place.
But a meeting of the two heads of government has never happened in the 66 years since Taiwan’s founding. That it has now is seen by some as an effort on Ma’s part to boost his own and his party’s profile ahead of national elections in mid-January; the KMT is badly trailing in the polls, and is widely expected to lose power to the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), which takes a much less accommodating view towards relations with China. In agreeing to the meeting now, Xi has removed much of the uncertainty a return to power of the DPP in Taiwan would have cast on Taiwan-China relations, and has essentially knocked the pins out of the DPP’s tougher stance; they cannot take a hard line now without looking like the aggressor. Keep in mind the circumstances of the meeting: Not coincidentally, putting the DPP on the back foot also reduces the potential influence of the United States through Taiwan, both directly and through engagement with close US allies South Korea and Japan.
And by showing his willingness to engage diplomatically over what it is far and away the most intractable of China’s many geopolitical conflicts – for all intents and purposes, an unresolved civil war between China, who views Taiwan as a renegade province, and the Taiwanese, who consider themselves an independent country – Xi has gained an advantage in others, such as the maritime disputes with the Philippines, Japan, and Vietnam, not the least through temporarily diverting attention from those issues at a time when they are heating up, particularly where the Philippines is concerned.
Our government, who for five years has taken a rather simplistic approach to relations with China and resolving our West Philippine Sea dispute – much to our country’s detriment, we believe, the recent progress of our case before the UN tribunal notwithstanding – would do well to absorb the lessons to be learned from Mr. Xi’s and Mr. Ma’s historic handshake: China and its enigmatic, sublimely clever leader are not to be taken lightly.