I don’t usually post with immediate reactions to breaking news. I prefer to let things sink in and roll ideas around in my head for a while first. However, Ma’s announcement that he will meet Xi Jinping in Singapore is a big deal. So here are some of my thoughts.
The announcement was done very stealthily. As far as Mrs. Garlic can determine, the Liberty Times was the first one to post the story online (at about 10:34pm, or an hour before Central News Agency). In other words, the presidential office didn’t intend to break the story just yet. I think this means they wanted to wait as long as possible in order to preclude any mobilization of public opposition that might force them to cancel the trip.
It is hardly a triumphant visit when you have to do it stealthily. Taiwan’s relationship with China, broadly conceived, shapes every aspect of Taiwanese politics. You probably shouldn’t be sneaking around behind the public’s back.
The presidential office has promised that it will not sign any agreements, and Ma and Xi will not issue a joint statement. That doesn’t mean nothing significant will happen. I’m not sure if there will be any private meetings, or if all discussions will be in front of the media.
It really isn’t an ideal bargaining situation for Taiwan. It has a discredited lame duck president who desperately wants to cement his place in Chinese history in the seven remaining months. He will be eager for anything to make him look like he is achieving a significant breakthrough. Ma’s desperation gives China all the leverage. Indeed, one wonders what Ma had to concede in order to secure this meeting.
Ma apparently thinks that simply by meeting and publicly shaking hands with Xi, he will transform the dynamics of the election. This will prove that the KMT’s approach is bearing real fruits.
I’m not so sure. There certainly is the potential that this meeting could shake the election up. However, for it to provide a real boost to KMT electoral prospects, I think something more than a simple handshake would be necessary. For example, Ma might directly introduce himself to Xi as “President of the Republic of China, Ma Ying-jeou.” Alternatively, Xi could state his support for the “92 Consensus, that there is One China, each side with its own interpretation.” And if Xi were to state, that the Republic of China and People’s Republic of China are both parts of One China, that might really have an impact. However, I don’t think there is much chance of any of this happening. KMT leaders have always understood that one of the fundamental premises of cross-strait relations in the current KMT-CCP model is that they are never to directly confront China with the existence of the ROC. From China’s point of view, they are playing a long game. They are unlikely to make any concessions for a short-term gain. I simply can’t imagine Xi taking – or even wanting to take – such a risk right now.
What is more likely is that this trip will create a strong backlash in Taiwanese society. Many people will be very uneasy at the prospect of an unpopular lame duck president trying to fundamentally change the status quo in the last few months of his presidency. Ma simply does not have any popular mandate for cross-straits negotiations right now. The more he tries to accomplish, the larger the backlash will be. Ma might assume that a picture of him shaking hands with Xi will be a powerful image for KMT campaign ads, but I suspect he is misjudging the electorate. I would not be at all surprised if that photo does not show up more frequently in anti-KMT ads, facebook posts, youtube videos, and tweets. Instead of symbolizing the success of the KMT’s strategy for dealing with China, I believe that photo will come to symbolize Ma’s insistence on putting his personal interests (ie: his legacy) ahead of the national interests.
There is a real risk that this could lead to an extremely polarized environment. You can expect anti-Ma demonstrations this weekend, and they might be quite large. Depending on how far Ma goes, we might be in for a tense few next few weeks.
Electorally, I think Ma’s visit makes the probability of a DPP landslide in both the presidential and legislative elections larger. Such a landslide would have the effect of repudiating any initiatives that Ma tries to push. However, the process could be quite tumultuous, and it will be impossible to erase the precedent of the meeting.
I hope I’m overreacting and I wake up much less pessimistic tomorrow.