OPINION | Xi-Ma Summit: More Symbolic than Significant by Amrita Jash
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OPINION | Xi-Ma Summit: More Symbolic than Significant by Amrita Jash

By Amrita Jash

After an interregnum of 70 years, the leaders of China and Taiwan met for the first time on November 7, in a summit in Singapore. Setting a historic undertone to the cross-strait relations, the encounter between Chinese President Xi Jinping and Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou symbolized the first ever diplomatic interaction between the two parties. 

For Xi-Ma summit is the first since 1945 when Communist Party leader Mao Zedong met  his Kuomintang (KMT) adversary Chiang Kai-shek in the war time capital of Chongqing for seven weeks of talks. Besides a long handshake, the leadership on either side further added to the symbolism. For  Xi called the two sides as “one family” wherein “[w]e are brothers who are still connected by our flesh even if our bones are broken, we are a family in which blood is thicker than water”. While Ma stated that: “[w]e crossed 66 years of space and time to stretch out our hands and shake them together, holding in our hands the past and future of both sides of the (Taiwan) strait”. These very statements seem to project an ease in the relations.

In this dynamic of opening a “historic new chapter” in the China-Taiwan relations, this entente cordial was gazed as a parallel to the 1972 Nixon visit that resulted into Sino-US rapprochement. But unlike Mao-Nixon talks which led to normalization of relations between Beijing and Washington, Xi-Ma summit failed to pave any significant breakthrough in the cross-strait relations. Besides setting the impetus of optimism, the interaction being limited in scope, just succeeded in adding a new form of diplomatic symbolism to the long strained relations. That is, though a high-point in the Beijing-Taipei relations since rapprochement in 2008, but Xi-Ma summit just marked a representation of symbolism over significance.

What makes it so is the political divide that exists between China and Taiwan. For China’s Taiwan policy is regulated by the political theorem of “One Country, Two Systems”, wherein China sees Taiwan as a “renegade province” and “reunification” is the long standing goal. While Taiwan insists on “maintaining the status quo of no reunification, no independence and no use of force”. Thereby, with such political underpinnings a diplomatic relation between People’s Republic of China and Republic of China still remains uncertain. Here, the quandary lies in China treating Taiwan as a ‘sovereign entity’- which is the  reality in China-Taiwan relations.

In these complex state of affairs, what made the leadership to break the ice is the personal quotient between leaders on either side. For China-Taiwan relations took an upward swing since Ma Ying-jeou took office in 2008, who built his presidency over closer links with Beijing. This is reflected in terms of better economic ties, improved tourism and most significantly, a trade pact between the two parties. With such significant exchanges, Xi-Ma summit appears more like a normal affair rather than an exception.  But what makes it an exception is the hidden interest on either sides to maintain the status-quo. That is, for Ma the interest lies in saving the Kuomintang’s  foothold in the 2016 Taiwan’s Presidential elections against the opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP). As unlike Ma, DPP candidate Tsai Ing-wen of stands for pro-independence. This nationalist sentiment is in-sync with that of China as a Beijing friendly leadership is more favorable in fulfilling Xi’s ‘dream’ of reunification than a separatist leadership calling for pro-independence. Therefore, more than being a national interest, Xi-Ma interaction was driven by a personal interest of leadership on either side.

In an overall assessment, the historic Xi-Ma summit stands nothing more than symbolism. The lack of significance lies in the inability to pave any substantial breakthrough as no substantial agreements or political statements were reached. Despite being reiterated as a “historic new chapter”, China-Taiwan relations still remain at ground zero, wherein transcending from ‘Cross-Straits’ to becoming ‘One China’ still remains uncertain in the near future. Following this summit and growing pro-independence momentum in Taiwan, 2016 Taiwan elections will pave the new path of China-Taiwan relations.

About the Author:

Amrita Jash is Editor-in-Chief of IndraStra Global and is a Doctoral Research Scholar at the Centre for East Asian Studies (Chinese Division), School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University. Thomson Reuters ResearcherID: K-5565-2015  

AIDN: 001-11-2015-0407