For several months now, there has been talk of a meeting between Taiwan’s president Ma Ying-jeou and the People’s Republic of China president Xi Jinping. Such an event would be the first time that the leaders of the two sides had met since the late 1940s. After 65 years of relations that were ambivalent at best and downright dangerous at worst, a Ma-Xi meeting would affirm the changes for the better that have occurred since Ma came to power and suggest a promise of more to come.
Both Beijing and Taipei talk approvingly about the idea of a summit, but there are a number of issues that must be resolved before the offices of the two leaders can start blocking off schedules. All of these issues derive from the fundamental disagreement between Taipei and Beijing over the legal and political character of the government in Taipei, whose formal name is the Republic of China. Is it a sovereign entity as Taipei asserts? Or is it a non-sovereign entity with a status lower than the PRC authorities, as Beijing claims?
The first issue is the location and occasion of the meeting. Taipei has proposed that the meeting take place in Beijing in mid-November in conjunction with the APEC leaders meeting. That occasion would lend an international dimension to a Xi-Ma summit and implicitly confirm Taipei’s view of its status. Precisely for that reason, Beijing has consistently rejected the Beijing-in-November proposal. At one time, Beijing might have been happy with Hong Kong, because it is PRC territory and the formula it has used for the reversion of Hong Kong (one country, two systems) is the same one it would like to apply to Taiwan. For precisely that reason, and because one country, two systems is very unpopular in Taiwan, that would have been a non-starter for the Ma Administration. Now, however, even Beijing might be reluctant about a Hong Kong venue, in light of the ongoing campaign there for more democracy and Taiwan’s status as one of Asia’s better democratic transitions.
There are other places in Asia that might be acceptable enough to the two sides, but finding the right one is only the first of the problems that must be addressed. The next one is the political status of the two gentlemen who would meet. It can’t be “President of the People’s Republic of China” and “President of the Republic of China” because formally Beijing rejects the existence of the ROC. It can’t really be “Secretary General of the Chinese Communist Party and Chairman of the Kuomintang” (Ma’s party) because that is a way for Beijing to treat the KMT merely as a political force within China that has yet to concede to Beijing’s authority. It’s thus a way to deny the existence of the ROC. Perhaps “Leader of Mainland China” and “Leader of Taiwan” may be mutually less objectionable.
The third issue is what the two leaders call each other face to face and what each is called in the other’s media. Ma would love it if Xi called him “President Ma” (and Ma would reciprocate). But that seems unlikely. So the most neutral face-to-face approach would be for Ma to say “Mr. Xi” and Xi to say “Mr. Ma.” On media coverage Taiwan will worry from past experience in lesser cases that PRC media reports would be tempted to use terminology to downgrade Ma and Taiwan, whatever Xi had said face to face.
Finally, there is the question of what substantively the two sides would like to accomplish through the meeting. This could be critical because any substantive outcome could affect, and probably would affect, each side’s advantage in future negotiations. Beijing would probably like to achieve with Taipei a more explicit consensus on the idea of one China and where Taiwan fits within it. Taipei would certainly be very cautious in agreeing to something more explicit than the 1992 consensus, which President Ma has accepted. A new formula would likely shape negotiations from here on out.
Finally, any Taiwan leader who met with his Mainland counterpart would have to maintain public support for the overture, and convince the public that he or she had not even inadvertently sacrificed Taiwan’s fundamental interests for the sake of a meeting. And the reality is that Taiwan remains a divided polity. The opposition camp has been quite skeptical—or downright opposed—to Ma’s China policy so far. It would instinctively question the motivation and outcome of a Ma-Xi meeting. (The fact that Ma is a Mainlander by origin will increase any suspicion among the opposition.) That is not a reason not to do the meeting; it is a reason to do it right and ensure broad public support.
So we have a set of issues that are fraught with difficulty and complexity. But both Taiwan and the PRC are blessed with smart people who could probably work out many if not all of these issues – assuming that there is political will on both sides and a willingness to set aside a you-win-I-lose mentality.
Let us say the two sides choose to try to remove these obstacles to a Ma-Xi summit. In that process, it will be important for Beijing to distinguish between its long-term goal (unification) and intermediate goals. It will both have to take care not to push too hard to seek tactical advantage. It should see the value of showing flexibility on the issue of the Republic of China. Beijing’s lack of creativity on the ROC is the key reason it has failed to achieve its goal of unification. If Beijing is prepared to accommodate to the ROC in a substantive way in creatively working out how Taiwan is a part of China, then it has a chance over the long term to achieve its ultimate goal, not only with Taiwan elites but also with the public. If it chooses to focus on tactical victories in working out the details of a Ma-Xi meeting, it will probably foster such a negative political response on Taiwan that unification is even further off than it was before.
I understand full well that for Beijing to address the issue of the ROC in a positive way would be quite consequential for Chinese leaders in a myriad of ways. Past dogmas would have to be abandoned. At this point, fairly symbolic gestures may be all that is possible. How to handle a Ma-Xi meeting could be a point of departure in a gradual process. And ironically, if Beijing were willing to signal to people in Taiwan that it is seriously willing to take on the issue of the ROC, even symbolically, the best way to do so would be to agree to a Xi-Ma meeting in Beijing on the edges of APEC, which is what Taiwan has sought all along.