Post-Meet Analysis: What does the Xi-Ma Meeting mean for China and Taiwan?

Professor Steven Goldstein, Associate at the Harvard University Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies, gives his expert opinion on what this historic meeting means for China and Taiwan.

Ma Ying-jeou and Xi Jinping shake hands, Photo: The Straits Times, Kua Chee Siong

In all respects but one, the meeting between Ma and Xi was merely a symbolic affair. Comparisons between the Nixon-Kissinger opening to China are misleading. In that case a process was initiated while the Ma-Xi meeting is best seen as the culmination of a process that began in the 1990s. As such, one might have expected that it would result in concrete achievements.

This was not the case. The dominant theme was the articulation by each side of its positions on some of the major issues affecting cross-strait relations such as the military threat from the mainland or Taiwan’s greater participation in international affairs. On the former issue, Xi reportedly minimized the threat of Chinese missiles, while in regard to the latter issue, standard positions were exchanged. The apparent agreement to establish a “hotline” would appear to be largely symbolic since communication links between the two sides have been well established.

There is, however, one area where the impact of the meeting might be significant. In his remarks Ma made “five points for maintaining the status quo of peace and prosperity in the Taiwan Strait.” The first of these was the “consolidation of the 1992 Consensus [one China, respective interpretations] and the maintenance of peace” along with a very careful elaboration of the fact that for his government, the “one China” was the Republic of China.

It is perhaps natural that Ma would highlight the 1992 consensus. It has been the foundation of his administration’s mainland policy and, as such, a central component of this historical legacy. However, it is also a controversial issue in the current presidential campaign. The DPP does not recognize its existence and a recent survey by the Taiwan Indicators Survey Research showed that only 27.4% of those polled recognized it.

Thus, the strong emphasis on the 92 Consensus as the basis for maintaining status quo is not only a statement of the essence of the Ma administration’s mainland policy and his belief regarding what is needed in the future. It also is an implicit intervention in the current campaign by the leading figure in the KMT.

What the effect of this will be is presently uncertain. Will Ma’s statement and its role in the historic meeting be used by the mainland to present Tsai Ying-wen as an outlier and harden the mainland’s insistence that acceptance of the 92 Consensus is the sine quo non for advancing cross-strait relations under the DPP government? In Taiwan, will it be taken by the voters as an affirmation of a necessary element to continue to maintain status and so enhance Chu’s candidacy or will it work to the benefit of Tsai by adding to voter suspicions regarding the KMT’s mainland leanings and the partisan nature of the 92 Consensus?

Professor Steven Goldstein is Sophia Smith Professor of Government at Smith College. He is an Associate at the Harvard University Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies, and the director of the Fairbank Center’s Taiwan Studies Workshop. Most recently, he is the author of “China and Taiwan” (Polity, 2015).