On Saturday the 7th of November 2015, the presidents of the Republic of China on Taiwan and the People’s Republic of China met for the first time ever at the Shangri-La Hotel in Singapore, some twenty-three years after official and public direct communication between the respective countries’ governments first began. Except officially, that’s not what happened at all. The world instead watched two neighboring Asia-Pacific ‘leaders’ slow waltz past each other with a handshake, twenty minutes of open door statements, and then post-meeting press conferences held by ‘the two sides’. To prevent misunderstandings shattering the finessed choreography of the spectacle, the title of ‘President’ was benched in favor of the less confrontational ‘Mister’. Xi entered the Hotel's front door with a personal high-level government escort, Ma arriving at the back, accompanied by somebody from some department in the Singaporean Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The leaders dutifully reaffirmed their adherence to the 1992 Consensus, and their shared desire to advance the peaceful development of the Great Chinese nation and its people (noun, singular).
In the run-up to the meeting, Taipei and Beijing both played down its significance. For the latter, it was little more than a temporary diversion from Xi’s world tour of ‘soft power’, bringing the President a littler earlier than planned to Singapore. Xi would meet Ma, but it would be brief and micro-managed. A key priority was to avoid giving the impression that this was in any way a ‘bilateral’ or ‘international’ event. As a matter of due course there would be no mention of, or symbol suggesting, the existence of the Republic of China in Xi’s presence. Since ‘Mr. Ma’ is no longer Chairman of the KMT, pitching the meeting as a party-to-party affair between the two chairmen was off the books. Thus, Singapore 2015 was framed, at least by China, as a ‘domestic’ meeting of titleless ‘leaders’ of their respective ‘authorities’. Since, as a firm rule, Xi’s China does not negotiate, as equals, or on the international stage, with the ruling elites of what it considers to be temporarily autonomous ‘renegade provinces’, if there were to be actual exchanges of opinion requiring a response, China would engage a familiar strategy—regardless of what tribute was paid it would offer nothing of substance in return except perhaps a concerned tone of patronage, vague assurances, and that the petitioned items conveyed from the periphery to the center would be ‘looked into’. Through its attendance, Beijing would affect a minimum plausible sense of occasion. Xi would attend to shake hands, acknowledge the existence of Mr. Ma and the ‘1992 Consensus’, and receive Ma’s petition.
In contrast, for Ma, this was possibly the crowning achievement of his career—a historic Nobel Peace Prize winning rendezvous that would stun international media and cement his legacy in the Chinese world—a humble and patriotic descendant of the Yellow Emperor working to end a decades long internecine animosity and the Chinese president who began uniting the nation after a bloody, long-standing period of rivalry and separation. The meeting would also perform supplementary functions: it would create a fait accompli for any potential Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) president or legislative majority—a Gordian Knot, the denial, rejection, or bypass of which would guarantee a swift and categorical response from the ‘mainland’, complete with copy and pasted Taiwan President Chen-era accusations of needlessly provoking tensions. For Taiwan’s Mainland Affairs Council this was an opportunity for the Ministry and the ROC to stand as tall as possible in front of two audiences: Taiwan and the international stage. The meeting would generate public, recorded vindication of Ma’s unshakable faith in the belief that the ‘1992 Consensus’ was an indispensable engine of cross-strait relations. This was necessary because, as a window dressing of constitutionality originally forged by the KMT and CCP to allow public parading of key milestones in their private working arrangement, the ‘1992 Consensus’ had been rapidly losing the capacity in Taiwan to maintain the illusion that the two sides still, were, or had ever been, negotiating as mutual, sovereign entities. The public was not buying the formula for One China whichever way it was stated. Singapore 2015 would refortify the 1992 Consensus, make it dependent on an open acknowledgement of ‘One China’, and place it at the center of a new institutionalized, and potentially irreversible, paradigm of cross-strait relations, weaponized just in time for the elections.
According to conciliatory drafts allegedly agreed between Taiwan’s MAC and China’s TAO before the meeting, Xi wouldn’t verbally acknowledge Ma’s claimed definition of the ‘1992 Consensus’ (One China with each side verbally expressing their own interpretation of it) but he also wouldn’t express a contrary “One China with a common interpretation” either. Ma and Xi’s on-the-record remarks would avoid references to ‘One China’ and thereby avoid the need to define it. Referring in unison to the ‘1992 Consensus’ would be sufficient, allowing both sides to wink back at their domestic audiences. If successful, Ma, MAC, Chu, and the KMT could then dominate the campaign by framing it as a choice between Tsai Ing-wen's ‘status-quo’ and Ma's '1992 Consensus', as "recognized" by China in Singapore. Tsai's refusal to accept the ‘One China Principle’ stipulation of the ‘1992 Consensus’, or 'the One China Consensus', would naturally preclude her government from continuing talks, and perhaps from even maintaining any relations at all. For its part, China would remind Taiwanese voters that as long as the ‘1992 Consensus’ and ‘the co-ideas’ were honored the Chinese government would be more than willing to communicate with their Taiwanese counterparts, but that they would never “accept separatists”. As China ramped up the economic and political pressure, Tsai's refusal to concede would be framed ever more shrilly as evidence that Tsai was stalling. That she had no intention of unifying and was therefore actively seeking independence. In the best case the DPP would be out of power in four years time.
The post-meeting press conferences would be separate, allowing Ma to take questions and do what he has come to be renowned for: positively reinterpreting events. At same time the Chinese delegation would be afforded sufficient space to slide back behind its official version of events and back on up to the world stage—the end of the meeting marking the resumption of its State to State level operations. By the time Zhang Zhijun would speak, the Xi Government would have completed its temporary adjournment in international duties, and have resumed addressing Taiwan in the manner of a 'restive province'. In contrast, for Ma and his Government this would be a historic breakthrough meeting of equals that would generate huge international interest, bringing recognition and pride for Taiwanese. Ma would make a triumphant return bearing meaningful and demonstrably beneficial results. If the optics were right and everyone stayed on script, the meeting would be a low-key win-win with big implications. Sadly, not only did the meeting go slightly off script, leaving a hinted taste of broken bones and blood in the mouth, it was a canary in the coal mine. On clear display was Xi’s contempt for the people of Taiwan and their President, and also Ma’s unilateralism, seemingly against the direct advice of the MAC, in his determination to push his personal cross-strait agenda higher and faster at a time when its popularity with voters was clearly accelerating in the opposite direction. No surprise then when, rather than be lauded for his efforts, Ma was eulogized by Time Magazine as the wrong man at the wrong time.
What went wrong and what is there to be concerned about? The transcripts of official comments provide clues, the body language yet more; combining to suggest one side deigning to grace the other with its presence, the other side kneeling, arms held aloft clutching a shopping list marked “Double-Speed Institutional Cross-Strait Relations or Bust”. In his opening remarks to the meeting with Xi and witnessed by journalists, instead of referring to the “1992 Consensus”, Ma cited a “One China consensus”. He then failed to qualify for the cameras that the ROC may hold a different interpretation of what constitutes ‘China’ in this ‘One China consensus’. In doing so, Ma had unilaterally weakened the 1992 Consensus in a direction which legitimized Beijing’s interpretation, if only by its similarity of content. Ma waited until reporters had left the room to counterbalance in private to Xi what had just been declared in public to the world. Damage done, matters weren’t helped when he then reassured Xi that his definition of the 1992 Consensus did not include “two Chinas”, "one China, one Taiwan”, or “Taiwan independence”. This unnecessary ingratiation only served to discount credit Ma might have won for mentioning the respective interpretations. When Beijing then stayed on script, with Xi only mentioning the 1992 Consensus, it highlighted Ma’s impulsiveness. Worse, although Ma perhaps thought he was there to participate vigorously as a negotiator with equal standing, for the Chinese side the impertinence in Ma’s tone in the presence of Xi appeared for them to be as bearable as listening to nails scratched slowly down a chalkboard.
For many Taiwanese, equally upsetting was watching their President present first tribute then petition to Xi. Where they expected him to stand tall, he kowtowed. Following democratization, a consistent pattern of national identity has emerged in Taiwan. An overwhelming majority of Taiwanese regard Taiwan as their country and Taiwanese as their national identity, without it dominating, or being in contradiction with their other identities. Being proud to come from Taiwan does not mean hating the Republic of China or The People’s Republic of China, or "seeking separatism". It is not a non sequitur for a young Taiwanese to declare “I am a Taiwanese and I am Chinese” without feeling the need to define either with ‘special characteristics’. The actual Taiwan consensus then, and it has been since at least 1996, is that there is one country on each side of the strait. An important component of this Taiwan consensus is that the dignity of the nation, as reflected in the dignity of conduct of all levels of public servants on all international stages, should at all times be upheld.
A dignified, sovereign nation-state does not, for example, request greater international space from anyone, and especially not from the very agent that has never ceased, or eased up on, actively suppressing it. It does not report back, in the manner of a provincial governor to the Emperor, that the island's middle classes will revolt if they don't get this freedom to work unmolested on the international stage. A self-respecting and democratically cultured head of state would not propose the highly confrontational and polarizing idea of permanent Chinese officials being stationed in Taiwan, and it would not try to force through a trade-in-goods agreement when an attempt to do the same with sister legislation had just resulted in a three-week occupation of the Legislative Yuan and a heavy electoral defeat. Subsequently, polls are reflecting flat-lining approval of the President and his cross-strait crusade. "Did President Ma defend the nation's sovereignty and dignity?" 52.7% said no. "Was President Ma able to express your opinion and position?" No. 56.2%. "Should Taiwanese and Chinese leaders meet regularly, no matter which party is in power?" Yes, 73%. "Taiwan and China do not belong to 'One China'": 58% agree. Meanwhile, the DPP's Tsai has a 46.2% to 20.4% lead against the KMT's Chairman in the race for the Presidency, by any means no coincidence.
The electorate has grown weary and upset at the transformation of Ma the Pragmatic into Ma the Buffoon. The Taiwanese people seem unlikely to have much patience for any radical moves taken by Ma the Unilateralist. If there is any one-policy area where Taiwanese want stability, and interaction with China to develop slowly, carefully, and democratically, it is in cross-strait relations. Many can already see China’s economic contraction for the potential global trade recession it may herald. The idea of hitching the boat to a slowly sinking cruise liner loses support every day that Tsai Ing-wen convinces another voter she has the knowledge and capacity to handle cross-strait relations maturely, rationally, pragmatically, from a safe distance, and with dignity. Ma’s performance in Singapore did little to ameliorate the collapse of his claim that closer relations have, or will, deliver economic security and cross-strait peace. The fiscal impotence of ECFA, and Xi waving away Ma’s question on Chinese missiles pointed at Taiwan, have passed a verdict of failure and an inability on Ma's part to deliver on either. Ma’s pre-meeting annoyance at a reporter who raised Tsai’s concerns about the summit’s impact upon Taiwanese democracy didn’t go unnoticed. His snapped declaration that he didn’t understand what Tsai was talking about spoke to a disconnect between the Presidency and an electorate who were giving very unambiguous and consistent indications that they did understand her, and were increasingly likely to vote for her precisely because they too regarded Taiwan’s political and economic sovereignty, rule of law, freedom, accountability, democracy, and national identity as one indivisible and unnegotiable core interest.
Taiwan had expected Ma to spend November focusing on the elections and preparing for a dignified and democratic exit after serving two full terms, yet here he was transparently trying to lock the One China Principle into the 1992 Consensus and push through a petition of substantive changes to the ‘Status-quo’ only a couple of months before a new president-elect was to be chosen. It came as no surprise when a startled Taiwanese media played a significant role in upsetting the government’s narrative before, during, and after, the meeting. Nor when, only two days after Ma returned, the media had already moved on to animated debate over KMT Chairman and Presidential candidate Eric Chu’s upcoming trip to Washington, and how Chu would explain the Ma-Xi stunt to an unimpressed audience. The 'historic meeting' fizzled and died at the hands of bad timing and artificiality. Taiwanese weren't impressed. Ma’s haste to arrange it, his unilateralism during it, and his empty reassurances afterwards have only left too many Taiwanese voters and international observers with the impression of two smiling leaders shaking hands for eighty-three seconds over the still-writhing body of Taiwanese democracy. “The brutal, usurping, despoiler our Sun Yat-sen’s Great Chinese republic I believe”. “The deluded Provincial, puppet, pretender to the throne I presume?”
It is stretching the limits of plausible deniability to suggest, as some foreign commentators have, that the meeting in Singapore “produced no agreements or obvious directions in cross-strait relations”. The devil is in the details. Of most immediate concern are Ma’s slipped-in reference to military cooperation between China and Taiwan, and his push for the establishment of representative offices. Both programs would seriously complicate the security picture for Washington and require at the very least a reassessment of any risks these rapid developments pose to U.S.-Taiwan combined government programs on sensitive technologies, and on arms sales. For the U.S., Singapore 2015 represents a warning.
The U.S. needs to realize that its narrative on the definition of the Taiwan Strait ‘Status-Quo’ has been quietly sidelined by a KMT-CCP move to 'domesticate' what it regards as an internal 'unilateral' affair. One that won't involve a bilateral or multilateral solution, and especially not the direct involvement of the U.S. This Chinese nationalist united front has succeeded not in small part because of the legitimacy it was afforded every time the U.S. expressed pleasure that the ‘two sides’ were talking, regardless of the timing and content of those talks, or who was and wasn't invited to participate in them. Also unhelpful was U.S. silence on, or obliviousness to, the open secret of the shared objective of nearly all cross-strait talks since 2005: an irreversible, democratic or otherwise, march towards unification (which in Taiwanese roughly translates as "self-annex or be annexed"). Whilst the U.S. thought it was facilitating reduced tensions in the Strait, it was too often only empowering the united front in their efforts to ensure that only one pathway to peace was considered possible, which conveniently involved their exclusive model of cross-strait relations. Where the U.S. saw two governments negotiating, Taiwanese more often than not saw two ruling cabals discussing the progress of a plan whose existential objective would never be put to a vote. Ma, and the party elite who have assisted him, have been steering and overseeing a substantial change to the nature and content of the status-quo, and they have shifted Taiwan's center of gravity towards Beijing. Tsai's rising support then could well be a Taiwanese reaction to counterbalance Ma's undignified embrace of China. It's an example of how vital Taiwan's sovereign democracy is, and how passionately proud of it, and participative in it, Taiwanese are. Taiwan is a sovereign country, and its people value freedom and democracy. It is their very real sovereignty that engenders the right for Taiwanese to independently determine how free and politically independent they want to be through their votes and their freedom of speech.
The U.S. should keep a wary eye on Taipei and brace itself for possible further unilateral actions taken by President Ma. They would do well to remember that the KMT isn't just a political party, but a political organization that sees Taiwan as part of the China where they are the "rightful ruling class". It is an organization currently under heavy and sustained pressure, internally and externally. Ma has signaled he will not only defend but also deepen his legacy in the next seven months. If true, that could make for a politically uneasy and perhaps physically confrontational five months between the next president’s election victory and inauguration. After the election, the U.S. should remind all parties that cross-strait development cannot be sustained, and efforts to force it along will be counterproductive, if the process does not enjoy a clear democratic mandate amongst peoples on both sides of the Strait, or if it involves any form of coercion. At the same time, the U.S. should ready a list of responses should China take any disproportionate action to squeeze and isolate Tsai Ing-wen’s administration if and when she takes office. The U.S. could offer Taiwan some small ‘reward’ that is internationally meaningful every time China takes steps intended as ‘punishments’ and humiliation for Tsai’s government or Taiwanese on the world stage. For example, suppose China radically cuts the number of direct cross-strait flights for Taiwanese airlines? The U.S. responds by openly supporting Taiwan’s next application for full equal membership of ICAO as per its WTO status. It’s not hard to guess which of those two developments Taiwanese polls will quickly indicate is welcomed. The U.S. should leave no aggression left unanswered, always moving quickly to ensure any Chinese adventurism or unilateralism will not be a painless experience for Beijing. The responses shouldn't be big, or armed. There are after all thousands of international organizations. The more pressure China puts on Taipei, the more international space the U.S. encourages for Taiwan. Ultimately, as Randy Forbes quite logically pointed out, if Xi can meet the Taiwanese President in the capacity as ‘a leader’ then U.S. Presidents can too, no? Beijing will routinely and loudly protest because there's no political or symbolic gesture it wants to offer that is equally valued by Taiwanese. It can only demand 'peace' on terms it should know Taiwanese will never accept. Taiwan has moved on from the Chen era and has learnt from it—cross-strait tensions are manufactured in Beijing, the ‘1992 Consensus’ is a convenient myth, real Chinese missiles never stop pointing at any real Taiwanese sovereignty. It’s time for the U.S. to update its cross-strait understanding too.