http://thinking-taiwan.com/ma-xi-historic-meeting-singapore/After a long day with a full schedule, I don’t have the energy to do a full recap of my thoughts on the Ma-Xi meeting. Michael Cole has written an excellent summary of the events, so look there for a blow by blow account.
I want to focus on two questions. First, was there any important breakthrough? That is, did the two sides depart from any of their previous positions? I don’t think that anything significant happened. On the critical question of One China, both sides basically stuck to their previous positions. There was a lot of splitting hairs here in Taiwan, with some complaining that Ma didn’t add the phrase “each side with its own interpretation” in his statements before the meeting, for instance. However, I think that Ma used the phrase “92 Consensus” enough times to make it clear that he was not abandoning that position.
Interestingly, I think Ma may have actually made a mistake and provided an opening for Tsai Ing-wen to exploit. As an ardent Chinese nationalist, Ma’s purpose has always been to forestall any possibility of Taiwan independence. In this, he and Xi are allies. For domestic political purposes, Ma also wanted to say the words “ROC” in Xi’s presence, though he wanted to do this without causing offense. To do this, Ma explained to Xi that “One China, Each Side with its own Interpretation” does not mean Taiwan independence or One China, One Taiwan “because the ROC Constitution does not allow those.” In making this statement, Ma was subordinating the 92 Consensus to the ROC constitution, saying that the 92 Consensus follows logically from his interpretation of the ROC constitution. Here’s the problem: His interpretation of the ROC constitution is obviously wrong. Anyone who spends a few minutes in Taiwan will realize that there are lots of people who are advocating and organizing for Taiwan independence. It is not illegal to pursue Taiwan independence or One China, One Taiwan in Taiwan today. Even Ma Ying-jeou himself once took out an ad in a major Taiwan newspaper stating that Taiwan independence was a legal, though not desirable, option for the Taiwanese people. Ma might be correct that the original 1945 constitution did not allow Taiwan independence, but that constitution no longer governs the country. The constitutional order that exists today is based on that original document, but it has been modified many times (by the people of Taiwan) and augmented by many judicial interpretations. These later modifications supersede the original text. (As an American, Ma’s reading reminds me of those people who think the income tax is unconstitutional since they think the original text of the constitution is higher than the 16th Amendment. They are simply wrong.) Tsai Ing-wen has stressed that she will be bound by the constitutional order, which clearly allows options other than eventual unification with China. By Ma Ying-jeou’s logic of subordinating the ROC’s orientation to China to the constitutional order, the 92 Consensus is itself unconstitutional unless it allows for a wider array of options. In other words, grounding the policy in the constitution requires a future president Tsai to insist that a democratic Taiwan must be allowed to democratically choose its future from among all options. Of course she was always going to go in this direction, but I wonder if, instead of boxing her into a One China framework, Ma has inadvertently made it easier for her to escape that trap.
The biggest breakthrough of the meeting was the meeting itself. Ma and Xi got a nice handshake. It will make good fodder for deep green and, to a lesser extent, deep blue candidates’ campaign ads. Other than that, not much substantive happened.
The second big question is how all of this plays back at home. Did Ma score political points? Again, I think the answer is that this won’t have too much of an effect. The blue side will think that Ma did a great job, while the green side will wonder how in the world he has the gall to shamelessly do these things. He will try to sell some things as accomplishments. For example, he will talk about how he dared to raise controversial points directly to Xi’s face. I think he won’t get a lot of credit for this. For example, he talked about the missiles, and Xi said that those weren’t targeted specifically at Taiwan. Well, they are. We all know they are. And they still are. Xi didn’t offer to untarget them. Even if he had, we all know that it takes about 20 seconds to retarget them. Ma can try to claim credit, but the PRC isn’t diminishing its military threat to Taiwan. What exactly is he claiming to have accomplished? Ma asked for the PRC to stop continually insulting Taiwan NGOs and government organizations. How long do you think it will be before the next case of some Chinese nationalist demonstrating his or her patriotism by declaring to Taiwanese that they aren’t from a real country? Within a few weeks, the narrative will be that Chinese STILL do that, even though they now know that Taiwanese hate it. As for RCEP and AIIB, these are things that are desired primarily by big businesses, and big businesses are already in bed with the KMT.
On the other hand, I don’t think Ma overplayed his hand. The complaints are mostly the same ones that the opposition has been lobbing at him for several years. He conducted all the negations in secrecy and didn’t respect the principle of transparency. He didn’t talk about the right of Taiwan’s voters to decide their own future. His top goals were for his party, his nationalist dreams, and his personal glory, not for the people of Taiwan. He didn’t insist on an appropriate level of dignity and mutual respect. He is actively trying to move the country toward unification. I am not suggesting that these attacks aren’t warranted. Many of them clearly are. However, if you weren’t swayed by these attacks two weeks ago, you probably won’t be swayed by them next week.
I think Ma will probably experience a small bump in his popularity, but any positive effects in the legislative races will be offset by the negative effects of nationalizing the race. Ma and the KMT are still overwhelmingly unpopular, and the election has now been reframed in terms of high politics. Given that the KMT’s best chance of surviving January is the local popularity (based on things like intensive constituency service) of their 40 incumbents, forcing voters to think about national issues (ie: vote for the party, not the individual) is perhaps not the wisest strategy. In the presidential polls, Tsai is so far ahead that there is almost no chance that the Ma-Xi meeting will affect the outcome. (Before this all broke, most polls had her ahead by around 20%, and the gap was widening. Historically, a 20% gap in polls has usually meant something around a 20% margin in the final vote. So I wouldn’t be shocked if the roughly 45-23% gap ends up as a 58-36% victory.) Ma has tried to argue to voters that Tsai can’t conduct relations with China since she won’t accept the 92 Consensus. According to hundreds of polls, the voters haven’t bought that message so far. I didn’t see anything this weekend that would make them change their minds en masse.
[Bonus snarky contest: Anyone want to guess which statement from the international media Ma will claim to have been misquoted on?]