Historic meeting: China Taiwan Meeting
Published: November 4, 2015
Historic meeting: China Taiwan Meeting, An unprecedented meeting between the leaders of China and Taiwan, arranged at short notice for Saturday in Singapore, is under fire from opposition politicians in Taipei who say it is a blatant attempt by Beijing to influence the island’s forthcoming presidential and legislative elections.
But the talks between Xi Jinping and Ma Ying-jeou, who is soon to retire, will also be seen as part of China’s anticipated pushback following last week’s high-profile American naval challenge to its island-building activities in the South China Sea. China initiated the meeting, ending more than half a century of ostracism at the highest level.
China regards Taiwan as a renegade province and seeks its reunification with the mainland. But the island has enjoyed de facto independence since the Chinese civil war ended in 1949, underpinned by American military might. Like other countries in the region, Taiwan is in dispute with Beijing over claims in the South China Sea.
China-Taiwan tensions have eased somewhat during Ma’s time in office as his nationalist party, the Kuomintang (KMT), has expanded cross-strait trade and tourism. But the number of Taiwanese favouring reunification has been steadily falling, while suspicion of Beijing’s expansionist ambitions has grown.
Opinion polls suggest the opposition Democratic Progressive party (DPP), led for the first time by a woman, Tsai Ing-wen, is on course to win the presidency in January when Ma stands down. The party is traditionally seen as favouring independence, or at the very least maintaining the status quo. A DPP success would undoubtedly anger Xi, who has said the Taiwan issue cannot remain unresolved indefinitely.
Tsai complained that the announcement of the meeting came out of the blue. “To let the people know in such a hasty and chaotic manner is damaging to Taiwan’s democracy,” she said. The DPP spokesman Cheng Yun-peng said: “How can people not think of this as a political operation intended to affect the election?”
Yet if Ma is thought to be kowtowing to Xi, the Singapore meeting could backfire by stiffening opposition to China’s advances. Large-scale KMT defeats in local elections last year were attributed to a backlash, especially among younger voters, against the party’s perceived cosying up to Beijing. China says it has no intention of interfering in the 16 January polls, unlike in 1996 when it launched war games to try to intimidate voters.
Rejecting claims that Ma was selling out Taiwan, officials said he would make no deals, private or public, and would concentrate on promoting “the peaceful development of cross-strait relations”. Since neither leader recognises the other as a head of state, the two men will address each other “Mr”.
Xi’s sudden decision to meet Ma may be linked to escalating tension with the US. China claims sovereign rights in almost all the South China Sea, a vital international trade route. A meeting of Association of South-East Asian Nations (Asean) defence ministers ended in disarray this week when it failed to agree a joint communique because of the disputes.
After no headway was made in talks between US and Chinese naval commanders on last week’s Spratly islands incident involving a US warship, Ash Carter, the US defence secretary, pointedly took a South China Sea “freedom of navigation” cruise on Thursday aboard a US aircraft carrier.
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