What does Xi Jinping meeting Ma Ying-Jeou mean for China and Taiwan?

On Saturday November 7, 2015 the Presidents of the People’s Republic of China, Xi Jinping, and the Republic of China, Ma Ying-Jeou, will meet face-to-face. This historic and symbolic moment marks the first meeting between sitting leaders of the Mainland and Taiwan in over 60 years.

We asked our faculty, associates and students to offer their opinions on the historic Ma-Xi meeting, what this might mean for the future of cross-strait relations, and how this meeting might influence the upcoming Taiwanese presidential election.

Xi Jinping and Ma Ying-jeou shake hands for the first time, Staurday November 7, 2015 — Getty Images

Professor Mark Elliott

Harvard University Vice-Provost for International Affairs, Director of the Fairbank Center, Mark Schwartz Professor of Chinese and Inner Asian History

This is an historic moment for China and Taiwan. The meeting is designed to be symbolic, with diplomats on both sides of the Strait engineering a situation in which the two leaders can approach each other and walk away without loss of face from either side. The symbolism can be seen in the details, for example, each leader has agreed to refer to the other as “Mr.” as opposed to “President.” This is a far cry from the tension that has previously clouded relations between Taiwan and the Mainland.

Ma is fully aware that he has nothing to lose as his tenure winds down, particularly as the opposition DPP is likely to win the presidential election in 2016. This meeting is instead about setting the foreign policy agenda for the next Taiwanese president.

Professor Arthur Kleinman

Harvard University Esther and Sidney Rabb Professor of Anthropology; Professor of Medical Anthropology in Social Medicine, Professor of Psychiatry, Harvard Medical School; Director of the Asia Center

I started my own research on Taiwan in 1969, at a time when it was unimaginable that the leaders of Taiwan and the Mainland would meet in person.

On the positive side, this is a very important step in cross-strait relations. Even from just a symbolic position it shows that although the Mainland still sees Taiwan as a rogue province there is the ability to meet and engage. This speaks to a fundamental transformation in relations across many areas — travel, trade, investment among others. It is good that the two sides are talking at the highest level.

On the negative side, however, President Ma is facing some difficulties with the electorate in Taiwan. His concern is that the pro-independence DPP party will win the presidential election, indicating that perhaps this meeting is intended to shore up Ma’s own position domestically. The meeting will also almost certainly backfire for Beijing as the electorate voting for the opposition DPP is against reunification with the Mainland. Consequently, the meeting may actually increase the number of votes won by the opposition in the upcoming Taiwanese election.

As a long-term student of China, I have developed in my own position on Taiwan. When I began my studies in the 1960s, I used to be pro-Taiwanese independence. I have subsequently realized that the status quo with respect to Taiwan and the Mainland is the best that can be achieved politically for Taiwan, and a move towards independence will only provoke China — possibly into in an extremely unfortunate act of using force for reunification.

From any perspective, whatever results come of this meeting they shouldn’t be perceived as China throwing its weight behind the KMT, but instead a snapshot of where relations are between the Mainland and Taiwan.

Professor Steven Goldstein

Sophia Smith Professor of Government at Smith College, author of “China and Taiwan” (Polity, 2015), director of Taiwan Studies Workshop at the Fairbank Center, Fairbank Center Associate.

One can only assume that this meeting is related to the upcoming presidential election of January 16. On the one hand, it represents an attempt by Xi Jinping to aid a lagging KMT by demonstrating that with the KMT in charge relations with the mainland can make progress, and by Ma Ying-jeou to secure his historical legacy as the initiator of improved cross-strait relations while boosting his party.

How it will affect public opinion on Taiwan will depend on the perception of both the form of the meeting (will it be seen as party to party, will it demonstrate equality and mutual respect, etc.) as well as the substance (will it be seen as an example of the benefits of KMT rule or as just another example of what his opponents see as Ma’s excessive lean to the mainland).

In any event both sides will have to be very careful, Ma not to seem too conciliatory and Xi not to be too heavy-handed. It will be a very challenging bit of diplomatic choreography that, if mismanaged, could have real consequences for cross strait relations.

Professor Joseph Fewsmith

Professor of International Relations and Political Science at Boston University, Fairbank Center Associate

The meeting between Xi Jinping and Ma Ying-jeou this Saturday will indeed be historic; never before have the heads of these two governments met.

Arranging this meeting has required considerable diplomatic nuance. Xi and Ma will meet as “leader of the mainland” and “leader of Taiwan,” thus carefully avoiding a party-to-party meeting (which would certainly be repudiated in Taiwan) or a state-to-state meeting (which would be unacceptable to Beijing). Rather they will be meeting under the “one China principle” and the “’92 Consensus” that calls for “one China” but with different explanations.

For Ma, this meeting, will, he hopes, lock in the progress that his administration has made over the past eight years and reaffirm the idea of “one China with different explanations.” For Xi, this meeting appears to reinforce the idea of “one China” as the only viable framework for dealing with cross-Strait issues, thus making it very difficult for Tsai Ying-wen, widely expected to win the presidency next year, to repudiate the arrangement.

It may be that Ma Ying-jeou will actually do a favor for Tsai Ying-wen. Tsai has made clear that she hopes to continue the status quo across the Strait but her constituency makes it difficult for her to embrace the “one China” principle. If that principle is already locked into place, perhaps Tsai can continue the smooth relationship across the Strait simply by not repudiating this framework. So Xi gets the “one China” principle, Ma gets to solidify his legacy, and Tsai gets a framework she can live with.

The historic handshake between Ma Ying-jeou and Xi Jinping, the first meeting between sitting leaders of the Republic of China and the People’s Republic of China in 66 years.

Professor Rudolf Wagner

Senior Professor at University of Heidelberg, Fairbank Center Associate

This appears to be a last minute strategy by Ma to imprint a long-term perspective on China-Taiwan relations that his successors will be unable to avoid. This kind of meeting is not really done — even Apple Daily reported a poll that 58% of Taiwanese people opposed a meeting between Ma and Xi. The DPP are currently biting their tongues about the meeting, however, they are saying that the process by which the meeting came about is deeply flawed.

It will be thoroughly surprising if anything specific comes out of this meeting. There will be no agreement between Taiwan and the Mainland, but the real question will be whether Ma will be able to nail down his successors on the 1992 Consensus regarding “One China.”

Taiwan’s leeway with the Mainland is limited, however, not just because of the size difference between the two, but also because the Taiwanese business community who have invested or even settled in the Mainland won’t look favorably on a worsening of cross-strait relations.

Professor Odd Arne Westad

Harvard University S.T. Lee Professor of U.S.-Asia Relations

This is undoubtedly a historic occasion. Though it is one that Xi Jinping has engineered primarily for short-term political gain. Beijing wants to stack the cards against any form of more independent Taiwanese foreign policy if the opposition wins the elections next year. But, even so, the meeting could be positive for stable relations across the Taiwan Strait in the longer run.

Opposition leader, Tsai Ing-wen (center), with members of the opposition DPP party — Getty Images

Professor Arunabh Ghosh

Assistant Professor of History at Harvard University, Fairbank Center Graduate Student Associate

The meeting between the heads of state of China and Taiwan is particularly interesting in the context of the “China Model” (a concept described by academics such as Tsinghua’s Daniel Bell) and in terms of China’s perceived place in the world.

From a “China Model” perspective, where China’s rise is considered peaceful (中国和平崛起 Zhongguo heping jueqi), it’s interesting to compare how China is acting in the South China Sea with how it’s acting in Taiwan. The belligerence over land reclamation and apparent militarization in the South China Sea stands in contrast to the more measured, diplomatic approach towards Taiwan. This suggests that Beijing is taking a multi-pronged approach towards Taipei, which fits into a much larger picture of where China sees itself within a world order and how it sees itself developing in the future.

Professor Ya-Wen Lei

Junior Fellow, Harvard Society of Fellows, Assistant Professor of Sociology at Harvard University (effective July 2016)

The Xi-Ma meeting has more symbolic than substantive significance for cross-strait relations, given that public trust in President Ma remains low in Taiwan and that Ma’s presidency will end next year. It is laudable for Presidents Xi and Ma to promote peaceful development across the Taiwan Strait, but the development of cross-strait relations depends on how China and Taiwan understand and negotiate their enormous political differences. What is crucial to the future development is how the next Taiwanese president, very likely the Democratic Progressive Party’s Tsai Ying-Wen, deals with the so-called 1992 Consensus and formulates Taiwan’s China policy.

George Yin

PhD Candidate in Government, Harvard University

The Taiwanese government has been trying to hold this meeting with Beijing for a while now, and there are three main points to consider:

  1. From Ma’s perspective, this meeting is a way to establish his historical legacy as the first sitting Taiwanese president to meet with the president of the PRC, and to be remembered for improving cross-strait relations.
  2. Ma wants to set the tone for cross-strait relations given that the KMT is likely to lose the 2016 presidential election. Meeting with Xi is a way to exert extra pressure and constraint on DPP policy towards the Mainland both in the election campaign and after the next president is elected.
  3. By meeting with Xi, Ma is attempting to show that he is in control of both his party and in relations with Beijing. He is positioning himself as a key person in cross-strait relations who, like Lien Chan before him, will therefore be considered an important player even after his presidency ends.

For more insights into cross-strait relations, and relations between the PRC, Taiwan and the U.S., follow the Fairbank Center on Twitter and look out for upcoming events from our Taiwan Studies Workshop.