Ultimate Frenemies: China And Taiwan Presidents Talk For The First Time In 7 Decades

Breaking over 66 years of cold war tradition, the presidents of China and Taiwan made history in Singapore by meeting for the first time, leader-to-leader, since civil war split them in 1949. China’s President Xi Jinping and his Taiwanese counterpart, Ma Ying-jeou shook hands at the start of this historical summit hosted by Singapore, backed by the traditional yellow background of Chinese emperors before retiring to a closed door meeting. Before this meeting, China’s Xi said the two sides were and are one family and cannot be pulled apart. While Taiwan’s Ma responded by telling Xi the two sides should observe mutual respect after decades of hostility and rivalry and respect each other’s values and way of life. This meeting is quite remarkable and will go down in the annals of history as this summit marks a turning point in China-Taiwan relations and also marks the first time the rivals have come together in almost 7 decades.

Taiwan has been self-ruled since 1949 when Mao Zedong led Communist forces to victory and the Nationalists, led by Chiang Kaishek, fled to Taipei where they set up a rival government which claimed to be the legitimate government of the island and the mainland. From then on, both factions found it difficult to compromise in any way. The political status of Taiwan  hinges, in the most part, on whether firstly; Taiwan, Penghu, Kinmen, and Matsu should remain effectively independent as territories of the Republic of China (ROC); secondly, become unified with the territories now governed by the People’s Republic of China (PRC); thirdly, formally declare independence and become the Republic of Taiwan; fourthly, whether the existence and legal status as a state of both the ROC and the PRC is legitimate as a matter of international law, and; fifthly, how much diplomatic recognition either entity receives from the international community. Currently Taiwan, Penghu, Kinmen, Matsu, and some other minor islands effectively make up the jurisdiction of the state with the official name of Republic of China, but are widely known as Taiwan. The ROC, which took control of Taiwan (including Penghu and other nearby islands) in 1945, ruled mainland China and claimed sovereignty over Outer Mongolia (now Mongolia) and Tannu Uriankhai (part of which is present day Tuva, Russia) before losing the Chinese Civil War and relocating its government to Taipei, Taiwan in December 1949.

Taiwan (also known as Republic of China (ROC) as mentioned above) occupied a seat at the United Nations as “China” but lost it in 1971 and was replaced by the People’s Republic of China (PRC) what is today internationally known as China. Most sovereign states have switched their diplomatic recognition to the PRC, recognizing the PRC as the sole legitimate representative of China, though many deliberately avoid stating clearly what territories they believe China includes. As of 2013, the ROC (Taiwan) maintains official diplomatic relations with 21 UN Member States and the Holy See, although informal relations are maintained with nearly all others. These developments form the basis for the differences which characterized and still characterize the strained China-Taiwan relations to date. These facts hindered China and Taiwan from politically coming to a compromise and that is why a meeting between president Xi and President Ma is such a historical milestone.

Irrespective of these differences, several steps were taken to mend China-Taiwan relations. In 1987, Taiwan residents were permitted to visit China, leading to a boom in trade and reduction in hostilities. Four years later in 1991 Taiwan lifted its emergency rule, unilaterally ending a state of war with China. This led to an improvement in China-Taiwan relations as both sides held a talk in Singapore in 1993, which aimed to diffuse tensions between the factions.  This was, however, short-lived as in 1996, China tested missiles off Taiwan in a bid to deter voters in Taiwan’s first democratic polls and from carrying out any democratic elections. The situation was further aggravated when in 2005; China enacted a law which made the secession of Taiwan illegal. In 2008, China and Taiwan resumed high level talks in Singapore after Ma Ying-jeou was elected president. However these talks were mostly economic in nature, as in 2010 an Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement was signed between Taipei and Beijing. Irrespective of China’s policies and its relationship with Taiwan over the decades, Taiwan has developed into a vibrant democracy, but it has never declared full independence. This has been partly because some politicians, especially in President Ma’s party, adhere to the so-called One China policy and partly because China has threatened violence to regain the “rebel” island if it ever tries to formally split with the mainland or formally declare its independence.

The China-Taiwan summit has sparked different reactions from different audiences. China’s state owned media has been largely positive in the lead-up to the landmark meeting. Some independent reports show that parts of President Ma’s speech were widely censored in China. However, Beijing has been very careful not to make the summit appear as a meeting of equals. Chinese officials have suggested that Taiwan could return to China under an agreement or arrangement similar to the one China has with Hong-Kong. That is, one-country-two-systems framework designed to safeguard’s Hong Kong’s way of life when she reunified with China in 1997.

In Taiwan on the other hand, the meeting between President Xi and President Ma sparked outrage where sentiments towards Beijing are already negative after it refused to grant Hong-Kong greater democratic freedoms last year. Opposition protesters shouted slogans with placards in Taiwan’s capital, Taipei, opposing the planned meeting. Taiwan’s main opposition Democratic Progressive Party Chairperson Tsai Ing-wen criticized the manner in which the meeting was announced, saying it damaged democracy. In addition, President Ma has been accused of holding the meeting because of the countries up-coming elections in January which prohibits President Ma from running for president due to restrictions on term limits. President Ma however refutes this accusation by reiterating that his meeting with President Xi Jinping was about normalizing ties with China and had nothing to do with the democratic island’s elections in January. He further went on to say that his discussions with Xi could help reduce hostilities in the short term, while hoping future leaders of Taiwan would be able to hold such meetings.

The United States of America on its part has welcomed the meeting and applauded it as a step in the right direction. The US has also congratulated both sides on the improvement of relations between them in recent years. The US, which is obliged by law to protect Taiwan but does not support its independence, has encouraged both parties to come to a compromise. According to State Department spokesman John Kirby, the United States has a deep and abiding interest in peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait, and the US encourages further progress by both sides toward building ties, reducing tensions, and promoting stability on the basis of dignity and respect.

The problem between Taiwan and China would continue to persist with both sides sustaining diverse views. Taiwan’s options for how to deal with its ambiguous international status in the future are limited and they vary as to their degree of realistic attainability: independence, unification with China, or the maintenance of the status quo, at least until a better opportunity opens up. However, China’s threat of resorting to violence or the use of force if Taiwan doesn’t comply ultimately should be discarded. It is important that the restructuring of international thought away from destructive tendencies and towards peaceful non-combative strategies should be encouraged. The meeting between President Xi of China and President Ma of Taiwan is a major step towards arriving at a solution.