World·Analysis

Have China, Taiwan finally stopped staring each other down?

For the first time in 66 years, the leaders of China and Taiwan are going to sit down together on Saturday, in Singapore, and have a formal meeting about what the future may bring. As Patrick Brown writes, this could be historic on any number of fronts.

Presidents to meet Saturday for first time in 66 years, sparking much speculation

An activist in Taipei kicks a portrait of Chinese President Xi Jinping during a protest against the upcoming meeting between Taiwan's President Ma Ying-jeou and Chinese President Xi Jinping. Taiwanese democrats are not anxious to be formally reunited with Beijing. (Edward Lau/Reuters)

The dramatic — and unexpected — summit meeting planned for the leaders of China and Taiwan on Saturday once again shows that China's President Xi Jinping is not afraid to stir things up.

For Xi's audience back home, the Singapore meeting represents a bold and decisive gesture reminiscent of the leadership style of his two great predecessors, Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping, in contrast with the cautious committee approach of recent years.

As such, it helps consolidate Xi's leadership while laying the foundations of a legacy.

From the international perspective, Xi is making a move to tackle one of the world's trickiest pieces of unfinished business.

The two Chinas have been staring each other down since the end of the civil war in 1949, when Mao Zedong established the Communist Peoples' Republic of China on the mainland, while the losing Nationalists, led by Chiang Kai-shek, fled to the island of Taiwan to set up the rival Republic of China.

In many ways, the resulting divide has been bridged in recent years.

Hordes of tourists and business people flow in both directions. The two economies are inextricably linked, and awkward compromises allow Taiwan to function as a sovereign country in all but name.

Taiwan has embassies in very few countries, most of them insignificant, but trade delegations everywhere.

It lost its UN seat in 1971, but it still belongs to international bodies like the World Trade Organization, and competes in the Olympics, under the pseudonym Chinese Taipei.

But the mainland's flexibility on the practical details of Taiwan's de facto sovereignty evaporates when it comes to the real thing.

Force if necessary

Beijing has frequently warned that it will use force to prevent any move towards formal independence.

Reunification has always been a long-term goal of deep importance to China's leaders who see it as the return of a renegade province to the motherland's warm embrace.

Taiwan's main opposition, Democratic Progressive Party Chairperson Tsai Ing-wen, has been leading in the polls heading into January's elections. In the past, the DPP has flirted with seeking full independence, much to Beijing's consternation. (Pichi Chuang/Reuters)

In Taiwan, meanwhile, the ruling KMT party shares Beijing's view that the two Chinas should ultimately be one, while the opposition DPP flirts with the notion of independence without saying so too loudly, for fear of provoking China.

Taiwanese voters will choose a new president in January, and opinion polls show the DPP candidate Tsai Ing-wen clearly ahead.

The issue of relations with Beijing is not the only one, but it does seem clear that a majority of Taiwanese see joining a giant one-party state as not so much a warm embrace as an icy grip.

Therefore, the surprise announcement of an unprecedented summit was immediately seen by many in Taiwan as an attempt by Beijing to intervene in the election.

But that is probably selling Xi short.

He would not put his prestige on the line for such a trivial and unpredictable result. It seems more likely he is reaching for a much bigger prize.

Been there

The hallmark of Xi's three years in power has been the slogan "Realizing the China Dream," which means restoring China to its former greatness and prosperity.

Any such patriotic dream would have to include the return of Taiwan.

Previous leaders have been content to state the goal, but postpone the realization. It now seems possible that Xi wants to go for it.

He said as much early in his term, telling a senior Taiwanese official on the sidelines of an international meeting that "the issue of political disagreements that exist between the two sides must reach a final resolution, step by step, and these issues cannot be passed on from generation to generation."

So when Xi and Ma sit down in Singapore tomorrow, it will be the first time that the top leaders from the two sides have met since 1945.

Back then it was the U.S. that brought Mao and Chiang Kai-shek together at the end of the Second World War in an attempt to build on their alliance against Japan, and forestall resumption of the civil war.

The two actually agreed to call a conference to set rules for national elections and signed a document promising democracy, peace and national unity, before embarking on four more years of war culminating in the Communist victory.

Words on paper

Seventy years on, both sides say this summit will not produce any formal documents or deals, but if Xi is really dreaming of being the leader to achieve reunification he'll have to get down to details at some point soon.

China often insists that the future of Taiwan is an internal matter, but the U.S. role as the guarantor of Taiwan's security means China can't act alone.

Taiwan President Ma Ying-jeou, left, and China's Xi Jinping are to meet in Singapore on Saturday, the first time in almost 70 years since the leaders of the two, once-warring entities have sat at the same table. (Reuters)

Back in Washington, the State Department reacted to news of the summit with a non-committal welcome for any reduction in tensions.

But the U.S. would have a lot more to say about any unification proposal that didn't have broad acceptance in Taiwan.

Last year, Xi said that the basis for any discussion must be "one country, two systems" — the formula for Hong Kong's return to Chinese rule in 1997.

For many Taiwanese, that is a non-starter. Nowhere has the progress of the Hong Kong deal been more closely followed than Taiwan.

The level of Taiwanese support for reunification dropped considerably after the giant street demonstrations in Hong Kong last year over Beijing's refusal to keep a promise of more democratic elections.

Suspicion over any deal that Xi might eventually try to negotiate will also be deepened by a look at what Mao Zedong had to say about his agreement with Chiang Kai Shek when he returned to his revolutionary base in Yan'an.

"The agreements reached are still only on paper" said the report in his Collected Works. "Words on paper are not equivalent to reality." 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Patrick Brown

Eye on Asia

Former CBC correspondent Patrick Brown has reported from world capitals and dusty backwaters for over 30 years, with a particular emphasis on Asia, having been based at different times in Bangkok, Delhi and, most recently, Beijing. He now splits his time between Canada and China as an independent documentary-maker. Follow Patrick Brown on Twitter: @truthfromfacts

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