China and Taiwan Shake on It: Six Takeaways From Xi-Ma Meeting

Historic Handshake Between China and Taiwan
  • Summit pressures Taiwan opposition presidential candidate
  • Taiwan's Ma avoided talking about freedom, democracy

There it was, on stage in Singapore for all the world to see: China’s and Taiwan’s top leaders, shaking hands for the first time. It was a living demonstration of the "one China" principle that has underpinned reconciliation across the Taiwan Strait since 1992.

The concept -- that mainland China and Taiwan are part of the same country, even though they’ve been governed separately for 66 years -- ran through the remarks of both Chinese president Xi Jinping and his Taiwanese counterpart, Ma Ying-jeou, during their meeting Saturday. Ma spoke of the hopes of "the Chinese nation." Xi told Ma that "no power can separate us" and emphasized behind closed doors that such talks must not be considered "state-to-state" affairs.

The proclamations of national unity by two sides still technically at war raise the stakes for cross-strait talks going forward. In little more than two months, Taiwanese voters will choose a new president to manage the island’s mainland ties. The current front-runner, opposition leader Tsai Ing-wen, has declined to endorse the one China principle and the related "1992 consensus," saying only she’ll preserve the status quo.

Here’s what we learned from the meeting between Xi and Ma:

Pressure’s on Tsai

The exchange increased pressure on Tsai to say if she would accept the one China principle in her race against Eric Chu, of Ma’s Kuomintang, or Nationalist Party. "It provided a clear and pragmatic explanation to the somewhat ambiguous ’92 consensus," Liu Guoshen, director of Xiamen University’s Taiwan Research Institute. "For Beijing, the essence is that cross-strait relations are not ’state to state.’ It forces the future leaders in Taiwan to face up to this unavoidable question." Xi also told Ma that Taiwan’s independence -- an idea supported by Tsai’s Democratic Progressive Party -- was the biggest threat to peace. 

Ma Mum on Democracy

While Ma solidified the legacy of closer ties with China that he forged during his eight years as president, he chose not to use the occasion to assert the importance of democracy or the existence of the Republic of China, the government founded in 1912 and preserved in Taiwan. When faced with Xi across the table, Ma “paid homage to the guy," said William Stanton, a former U.S. diplomat and director of the Center for Asia Policy at the National Tsing Hua University in Taiwan. "He didn’t talk about freedom, democracy, human rights, even though those are the things he used to talk about."

Xi Outshines Ma

With all of Asia watching, Xi dispensed with the diplomat-speak and showed his flair for metaphor. "We are brothers connected by flesh, even if our bones are broken," Xi told Ma, in an appeal for China’s reunification. "We are a family whose blood is thicker than water." Ma was more prosaic, citing trade figures and promoting hotlines. Xi’s "speech was made from such a height, and was rich in history and had both depth and breadth," said Zhang Linzheng, professor of political science at National Taiwan University. "Ma, by contrast, was cautious, mincing his words and watching his step."

Protocol Disasters Averted

All the focus on protocol paid off. Calling each other "mister" instead of president, stowing the national flags and splitting the bill ensured neither side conferred legitimacy on the other. The end result still elevates Taiwan’s status, said Zhang Baohui, director of the Center for Asian Pacific Studies at Lingnan University in Hong Kong. Ma "can tell the Taiwanese people that ‘I achieved political equality and on the basis of mutual respect’ and that is a victory for Taiwan," he said.

Political Deal Far Off

A handshake is just a handshake. With Ma leaving office and his party trailing in the polls, the Communist Party remains a long, long way from coaxing Taiwan into political talks. "The time is not ripe for Beijing to ’close the deal’ on Taiwan unification," said Andrew Nathan, a professor of political science at Columbia University. "So they have to wait, refrain from triggering a crisis, and hope for an improvement in China’s image among the Taiwan voters."

Poll Supports Future Meeting

A poll by Taiwan’s United Daily News suggested people believe the Xi-Ma meeting set the stage for further talks. The survey found 37.1 percent of respondents approved of Ma’s performance at the summit, while 33.8 percent were dissatisfied. Either way, 67 percent favored a meeting between Xi and Tsai should she win the January election. The poll surveyed 832 adults on Nov. 8.

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