war on the rocks

The Xi–Ma Handshake: What it Does and Doesn’t Mean for Cross-Strait Relations

November 17, 2015

As Taiwan and mainland China forged agreement after agreement over the past several years, the prospect of another Taiwan crisis receded — but that is about to change.

In a striking shift from six decades of diplomatic precedent, the presidents of Taiwan and China met last week in Singapore for the first time since 1949. The meeting between Chinese President Xi Jinping and Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou has sparked vociferous debate in Taiwan. The ruling Kuomintang (KMT) Party is hailing it as an historic achievement worthy of next year’s Nobel Prize — it would not be the first prize awarded as an incentive for future diplomatic breakthroughs. Meanwhile, the opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) is casting the summit as a pandering stunt to pressure the likely next president, Tsai Ing-wen, to clarify her position on the so-called 1992 Consensus of “one China with different interpretations.” The matter is likely to come to a head in televised debate shortly before the mid-January Taiwanese election.

Obscured by this infighting in Taiwan is an appreciation of the animating forces behind Beijing’s decision to meet. Rather than representing progress toward a stable peace —1,500 Chinese missiles pointed at Taiwan and the refusal to renounce the use of force to settle the issue prevent that outcome — the tête-à-tête actually signals Beijing’s deep unease with the future direction of cross-strait relations. The handshake between these two leaders likely meant little. Rather, the meeting — long sought by Mr. Ma and finally agreed to by Beijing — was the latest in a string of such symbolic initiatives by Mr. Xi throughout the region. Like his recent northeast Asian summits, Mr. Xi’s handshake with Mr. Ma in Singapore contributes to a tactical burst of public diplomacy initiatives throughout the region.

Why is this change in diplomatic tone happening now?

President Xi and his government are facing growing headwinds both domestically and internationally. At home, China is facing what could be a prolonged economic slowdown as low commodity prices drive further declines in monthly trade numbers. Chinese island-building in the South China Sea has begun facing stiffer pushback, with international arbitration efforts heading to the Hague and U.S. B-52 overflights and freedom of navigation operations in the area welcomed by South Korea, Malaysia, the European Union, and others. The United States has also secured diplomatic victories that buttress its future role in the Asia-Pacific by clearing legal hurdles in the Philippines for greater defense cooperation and successfully negotiating the massive, 12-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership.

The general secretary of the Chinese Communist Party clearly needs to change the conversation, and a summit with President Ma could certainly achieve that. Moreover, neither the Chinese economic slump nor disputes in the South China Sea were on the summit agenda. Although Xi seized the post-summit platform in Singapore to reiterate his pledge not to militarize China’s new artificial islands, the land features are inherently militarized in purpose, already host construction of dual-use infrastructure, and will provide flexible access for rotational military and paramilitary forces.

Instead, President Xi sought to turn a U.S. strength to China’s advantage. While United States Secretary of Defense Ash Carter was sailing on an aircraft carrier and trying to explain the arcane points of international law just demonstrated by a U.S. destroyer, China was seeking peace, talking economic cooperation, establishing a new hotline to diffuse tension, and offering dreams of capital investment. While little was realized in the way of meaningful policy gains, the contrast in optics was stark.

This is not to belittle the significant progress made under President Ma’s leadership. His record on cross-strait relations represents a complete makeover from his predecessor, the DPP’s Chen Shui-bian. Ma is doing what he thinks best for Taiwan’s future, and cross-strait relations have never been more stable. Tensions between Taiwan and China have eased significantly under his watch, economic and cultural ties have prospered, and tourism has helped drive greater people-to-people exchange. However, China has used this period of cross-strait stability to buttress the military capabilities of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). Indeed, the latest Taiwan defense white paper argues that the PLA is on track to pose a comprehensive threat of invasion by 2020.

This makes it all the more important for Taiwan to avoid becoming politically hemmed in by China’s charm offensive. By choosing to meet President Ma so soon before Taiwan’s January election, President Xi is likely setting down markers for what he sees as acceptable bounds of conduct for the island democracy’s next leader. Xi knows the pendulum-like momentum behind cross-strait integration may soon start to swing back in the opposite direction, putting control of Taiwan further out of Beijing’s grasp. The raucous debate inspired in Taiwan by the Ma–Xi summit only validated this concern.

Taiwan’s future ambitions — greater participation in international organizations participation in the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, and inclusion in China’s Silk Belt and Silk Road initiatives — all depend on Beijing’s deigning to allow their fulfilment. The message from China is clear: If the next government of Taiwan wants continued approbation of the kind symbolized by this summit, do not deviate from the current path of ever-closer integration. Recall that China’s 2005 Anti-Secession Law outlines three major reasons for the possible use of force against Taiwan, including “major incidents” aimed at independence and the exhaustion of “possibilities of peaceful re-unification.”

Consequently, one begins to see President Xi’s diplomatic spurt as having more than a little coercion at its core. While the United States welcomed the meeting as consistent with progress toward eventual reunification free of violence or coercion, it should ensure that cross-strait relations remain that way. The next U.S. administration will likely face a new Taiwan crisis and must be prepared with a realistic strategy based on a lucid articulation of ends, ways, and means.

Both President Xi and Ma took risks in attending this historic event, but 20 minutes of diplomacy and an 81-second handshake are not where real issues get pounded out. Symbolism and atmosphere are important, but should not be mistaken for substance. President Xi is beginning to talk the talk, but his government is still far from walking the walk. History will judge, but this summit may only be a precursor to renewed turbulence across the Taiwan Strait.

China is more likely to expand its reliance on indirection and coercion than the canonical invasion scenario to keep cross-strait agreements from peeling away. A fluid situation in China and new leadership in Taipei means that improving situational awareness, crisis management, and de-escalatory strategies for Taiwan will once again be essential reading in the next U.S. administration’s transition briefing book.

 

Dr. Patrick Cronin and Harry Krejsa are the Senior Director and Research Associate for the Asia-Pacific Program at the Center for a New American Security in Washington, D.C. Follow them on twitter at @PMCroninCNAS and @HarryKrejsa.

 

Image credit: Foreign & Commonwealth Office