Editorial: Singapore, a day in November

A historic moment.

It is impossible to deny that having the president of Taiwan – the Republic of China, Ma Ying-jeou, shake hands with the president of China – the People’s Republic of China, Xi Jinping, is an unprecedented image.

ROC and Kuomintang leader Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek did meet with Communist Party leader Mao Zedong, but the latter still did not lead a country then, and the two were forced to be friendly due to a common threat from outside, Japanese encroachment.

As Japan vanished as the enemy in 1945, the two camps went to war on each other again, and as Chiang fled to Taiwan in 1949, handshakes and smiles became impossible.

So Ma may be right when he claims that relations between Taiwan, or at least the KMT government, and China have never been better than they are today.

He is right, but that does not mean those relations are normal. And meeting Xi in Singapore Saturday is not going to turn them normal.

Nothing is known about what the topic of the conversation will be which is scheduled to take place at the Shangri-La Hotel at 3 p.m. Saturday. And that is precisely the problem with the whole planning.

Will any major agreements be reached, or will they spend an hour repeating platitudes such as the “One China” principle?

The general expectation is that the Singapore summit is unlikely to achieve anything beyond providing Xi and Ma with nice pictures to show to the international media. With the clock running out on the Ma presidency, the Taiwanese president in particular will be able to boast that he at least achieved something, amid failed economic promises and rock-bottom popularity polls.

That nothing significant will change, is already being made obvious by both sides’ insistence that the two presidents will address each other as Mister Ma and Mister Xi, like two businessmen meeting each other for the first time at the hotel bar.

Another symptom of the unwillingness to change, is the choice of Singapore for the event. While the city state has maintained close unofficial ties to Taiwan, it is an official ally of China’s, and sympathetic to the cause of unification. The summit could not have taken place in Taiwan because of Xi and other Chinese officials’ known allergy to anything ROC, especially the national flag.

Ma had always been keen on the annual summits of the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation forum, but China repeatedly vetoed the proposal, because it considers Taiwan as a province and not as a mature sovereign country whose head of state can participate in international summits.

So, even the choice of Singapore for Saturday’s event betrays the lack of progress on the part of China’s leaders.

Never mind other contentious topics in the relationship which China should address. There has never been any mention by China of a withdrawal of even one of the more than 1,000 missiles pointed at Taiwan, and don’t expect any this weekend in Singapore.

Long gone are the days where the KMT government threatened to “retake the mainland,” so there is no reason for China to still hold on to any completely passé stances of its own toward Taiwan.

Hopes for any change or progress from the part of Xi and his China do not have any base in reality, and he does not have to worry about any elections, so there is no motivation for him to be generous, unless he wants to influence Taiwan’s January 16 elections in the KMT’s favor.

The biggest risk likely to occur at the Singapore summit might not come from the Chinese side, but could on the contrary be a willingness by President Ma to do something spectacular that could be remembered.

The danger is that Ma will foist a decision or concession on the next presidents of Taiwan that they don’t want, another promise or formula packaged in the way of the “1992 Consensus.” For years, the opposition and many prominent Taiwanese including former President Lee Teng-hui have denied the existence of the consensus, supposedly an agreement between Taiwan and China that there is only one China, but that each side can have an interpretation of its own what that China precisely could be.

As Ma has entered the final months of his period in government, and as opinion polls have consistently rated him below 20 percent, he has no mandate left to take any major decisions, let alone decisions which could affect the status of the country.

Any rehash of the “1992 Consensus” will already be bad enough, Taiwan does not need any extra concessions undermining its threatened identity and sovereignty. Ma will have to watch his words to prevent himself from wanting to make history at the expense of Taiwan’s fate.

As the Taiwanese people will choose a new president in January who will take office four months later, any major decisions affecting Taiwan’s status and foreign policies should be left to Ma’s successor.

Ma also says he wants to give summit meetings with Chinese leaders a permanent character, but that of course depends on whether China is willing to respect Taiwanese presidents who are less enthusiastic about cross-straits relations than Ma has been.

Once a new president takes office, who is most likely to be Democratic Progressive Party Chairwoman Tsai Ing-wen, she will probably try to redress the years of over-emphasis on close relations with China which Ma propagated. The pendulum will swing back to the middle, and Beijing might not like that. It could show its displeasure by downgrading talks with Taipei, or by stopping agreements and talks altogether. Such a move would throw Ma’s Singapore summit into the dustbin.

All that might be left of the November 7 encounter is a picture for history. A communist president of China shaking hands with a president of Taiwan.

It could become a lone entry in the photo album of Ma’s eight years in power, otherwise noted by economic stagnation and declining clout for an island once known as a miracle of economic development and democracy.

The Ma-Xi summit could end up being no more than a glorified photo opportunity, and maybe that’s the best for Taiwan.

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