Two Chinese leaders walk into a room: The Singapore meeting between Ma Ying-jeou and Xi Jinping

In a major shift for cross-Strait relations—and for the first time since 1949—China’s Communist and Nationalist leaders are meeting this Saturday. President of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) Xi Jinping and President of the Republic of China (ROC, which is on Taiwan) Ma Ying-jeou will meet in Singapore, where Xi will be on a state visit.

It is premature to speculate on the meetings’ impact on the Taiwan elections, scheduled for January 16, where Ma’s party—the Kuomintang (KMT)—is struggling. Does Ma hope to improve the KMT’s chances as well as consolidate his legacy in building cross-Strait cooperation? Why did Xi agree to the meeting, something Ma has sought for some time now? It’s hard to know. 

Meeting for its own sake

Holding a Ma-Xi meeting in a third country like Singapore plays better for Ma within Taiwan than doing so on PRC territory (e.g. Hong Kong). Singapore also happens to be where senior figures of Taiwan and the Chinese mainland held a path-breaking meeting in 1993, a meeting that Ma Ying-jeou helped facilitate when he was deputy chairman of Taiwan’s Mainland Affairs Council. 

The Xi-Ma encounter will have three parts: a private meeting, separate press conferences, and a dinner. For the purposes of this meeting, Ma and Xi are referred to as the “leader of the Mainland and the leader of Taiwan.” This is good for Ma, because it creates some equivalence between the two sides of the Taiwan Strait. The nomenclature is also artful because it avoids the fraught issue of the political and legal status of Taiwan and its government.

It appears that the meeting itself will be the event’s principal achievement. Expectations for any other breakthroughs are being set very low. A senior PRC official said that Ma and Xi will “exchange views on promoting peaceful development of cross-Strait relations, discuss major issues on deepening cross-Strait relations in various areas and improving the people’s welfare.” The ROC government has declared that the meeting will result in no agreements and no joint declaration, and that no political talks will occur. This is appropriate since the work of concluding agreements between the two sides has ground to a halt, not least because of politics in Taiwan.

A politically-fraught Taiwan

And Taiwan politics is the wildcard here. The island is deeply divided. On one side are people who have been comfortable with Ma’s outreach and engagement with the Mainland, believing that the gains outweigh the costs. On the other are people who have opposed Ma’s policies on the grounds that they benefit only certain sectors of Taiwan society and, more ominously, have put the island’s 23 million people on a slippery slope to political incorporation by Beijing. 

The party that best articulates this latter point of view is the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), led by Tsai Ing-wen, who is the DPP’s presidential candidate for January. Today, the DPP issued a five-point statement that questioned the timing and content of the Xi-Ma meeting and objected to the secrecy under which it was arranged. The statement called on Ma to “carefully observe his conduct [in Singapore],” adding: “Relevant arrangements and all statements must uphold our sovereignty and national dignity, while adhering to the principles of transparency and accountability.” 

In the next two weeks, we are likely to see a fierce struggle between the Ma administration and the DPP opposition to define the significance of the Ma-Xi encounter for Taiwan’s future.