This coming Saturday, Chinese president Xi Jinping and Taiwanese president Ma Ying-Jeou will meet in Singapore.
It’s the first presidential-level summit between Taiwan — the official name of which is the Republic of China — and the People’s Republic of China at any point during the island’s six-decade split from the mainland.
The status of Taiwan is one of the most potentially dangerous issues in international affairs. If Beijing ever tried to invade the island, which China’s communist regime has never ruled directly and which it considers to be a rebellious province, it would likely trigger an international crisis with the potential to draw in the US and neighbouring states in southeast Asia.
It’s been that way since the split between Beijing and Taipei following the Chinese civil war in the late 1940s. Today, the status of Taiwan is up there with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the partition of the Korean peninsula as one of the most seemingly-insoluble decades-old fault-lines in international politics.
Which is why it’s such a big deal when the situation looks like it might be nudging in a different direction.
As the Wall Street Journal reports, Ma is likely agreeing to the summit for internal political reasons, as his pro-rapprochement party looks poised to lose out to more Independence-minded parties in upcoming elections. Even so, the meeting might create a new baseline for relations between China and Taiwan. As one China expert noted, the summit could lead to the US government calling on more presidential-level meetings between the two governments, or even lead to an expectation of more frequent China-Taiwan summits.
This could be especially true if the pro-Independence Democratic Progressive Party comes to power in January’s elections. A chilling of cross-Strait relations in the election’s aftermath might increase an international sense of urgency to get Taiwanese and Chinese leaders talking to one another. Those pushing for greater engagement will have the recent presidential-level summit to point to — the first in the two government’s entire history.
It might not be a sea change in relations. As The Journal report notes, no one is expecting the summit to produce a joint statement or agreement. A resolution to the Taiwan issue is still a long way off. But the meeting is still an unprecedented development that could move the relationship between the two countries in a slightly more constructive direction.
Rival governments have ruled Taiwan and mainland China since 1949. In the ensuing decades, the mainland People’s Republic of China has emerged as an authoritarian economic powerhouse. Meanwhile, the Republic of China in Taiwan developed into a US ally and a democracy, with one of the 20-largest economies on earth.
Only 22 foreign governments recognise Taiwan as an independent country (the US withdrew recognition in 1979). But mainland China’s failure to actually govern the island has created a stable status quo. In return for the international community’s recognition of Beijing’s right to the island, Taiwan has received a kind of de-facto independence, enjoying many of the benefits of statehood without the international tension — or perhaps even regional war — that would result from China actually trying to assert territorial control.
Beijing has never mobilized for a full-scale invasion of the island. But there have been a few worrying flare-ups in relations between Taiwan and China.
In 1996, China carried out large-scale military exercises and fired missiles near Taiwanese waters in response to the election of a pro-independence government. The US moved an entire carrier group into the Strait of Taiwan to defuse the situation, and President Bill Clinton reportedly harbored fears that China was actually intended to invade the island. And in July of 2015, Chinese state television ran footage of a military drill in which soldiers stormed a replica of Taiwan’s presidential palace.
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