Daily Bloom is the shortform blog of New Bloom, covering breaking news events as they occur in real-time. 

Two Days of Empty Words

FOR ALL THE historic nature of the upcoming meeting between Xi Jinping and Ma Ying-Jeou, that this is a much vaunted event ending the just under seventy years in which no PRC and ROC president have met, it would be that this was a bombshell dropped on the Taiwanese public without warning. There has been much condemnation to date of the fact that this was, once again, a unilateral decision of the Ma administration which would profoundly affect cross-strait relations despite that .

And in the roughly two days since news broke, we have largely seem empty words from the Ma administration in which the Ma government insisted that Taiwan’s rights would not be compromised through the meeting. Yet the Ma government as well as Ma himself have attempted to occlude any specifics of the complex diplomatic dance by which Ma and Xi are to meet as equals without acknowledging each other as sovereign heads of state, though the details that media has managed to pry from the Ma administration are quite ridiculous. Ma and Xi will address each other solely as “Mister,” for example, in order to avoid the complicated question of how Chinese and Taiwanese high government officials should address the other which has been an obstacle to holding cross-strait meetings in the past. Significantly, in all this, China has only ever been referred to by Ma as well as officials as “the mainland,” not as “China”, or as “mainland China.” Furthermore, attempts by Mainland Affairs Congress to obfuscate issues were quite borderline at times, insisting that the situation was perfectly clear where “the leader of Taiwan is the leader of Taiwan and the leader of China is the leader of China”—when, of course, what is not clear at all is what the relation of the leader of Taiwan to the leader of China would be in this meeting.

What we already see, however, is that the Ma administration is already under uneven footing compared to the Xi administration in going to this meeting.  Does the PRC really need to worry about compromising anything to Taiwan by way of Ma mistakenly calling Xi the wrong title?  Yet if Ma is addressed in demeaning terms by Xi, that would certainly be a blow to Taiwan’s international prestige.  Of course, it is that China is an existential threat to Taiwan, but hardly vice-versa—this despite the claims otherwise of the PRC government that Taiwan is a dagger pointed at the neck of China.  But more to the point in this case, in going into a meeting with China, Taiwan is already on less than equal footing because it is Taiwan is not acknowledged as a country by most of the international community, and China is recognized in its stead.

The Silence of the US Up to Present

THE ELEPHANT in the room at present may be the lack of any real response by the US government at present. Ma himself has begun to put forward the claim that the US is positive on a meeting between him and Xi Jinping, but it is to be questioned as to whether this truly the case. Notably, the US has not said anything to back Ma’s claim or deny it thus far. Evidently, it would seem to be part of Ma’s motive in meeting with Xi Jinping that he wishes to convince the Taiwanese public that the KMT remains the only party capable of conducting relations with the CCP. But Ma would also like to convince the Taiwanese public that the KMT is also the only party with the confidence of the US as that only party capable of conducting relations with the CCP. With both, Ma aims to shore up the KMT’s fortunes in a moment of crisis.

Nevertheless, American silence may, in fact, be taken up as a carte blanche where this meeting is concerned. Ma’s meeting with Xi will largely be for show, in which there will be no actual decision-making made, given that in truth Ma and Xi can be in communication at any time without any need to broadcast the affair the world at large. But Ma’s meeting probably does actually throw a monkey wrench into, for example, any attempt to incorporate Taiwan into American efforts in the Asia-Pacific aimed at countering the rising power of China. Because the very significant aspect which most analysts have missed to date, perhaps being overly dismissive of the meeting’s lack of real-world effects, is that the meeting will have a profound impact where international perceptions of cross-strait relations are concerned.

And Taiwan has from the beginning been treading in dangerous waters where falsehoods circulate as fact regarding the understanding of the relation between Taiwan, China, and the US. The ultimate example would be the so-called 1992 Consensus, an apparent political fiction which later became political reality, in the sense that what was originally a political fiction has become what China continues to refer to as its watermark of cross-strait relations. Many also remain convinced that the US has a legal obligation to defend Taiwan in the event of Chinese invasion, which is not true at all. Yet this is another dangerous falsehood which circulates as fact because of the created perception that this is the case that results from American strategic ambiguity.

The Danger of Created Perceptions from the Xi-Ma Meeting

WE DO WELL to remember how incredibly obscure Taiwan is, despite its large economy (with the 22nd largest GDP out of the world’s 220 or so countries as of 2014) and relatively large population (54th largest in the world). Once again, we might remember previous incidents in which, for example, no less than Barack Obama would confuse Taiwan for Thailand.

As we observe in international media coverage of the cross-trait talks to date, despite there being much much talk about the historic nature of talks, there is actually little understanding of what this means. Because the leaders of two countries which have been at war since 1949 seems to suggest peace, there has come to be the perception that the meeting of a Taiwanese and Chinese president means peace and possible rapprochement. How could a meeting of the leaders of two countries which have not met for seventy years not be a good thing?

Actually, it is that because there is little understanding of the phenomenon of country which divides and becomes two countries, the memory of East and West Germany and Eastern European Balkanization, being too long ago—Cold War memories at best, if anything. And so in the media we see even the perception that the meeting of Xi and Ma is something like the leaders of North and South Korea meeting for peace talks—or even that we will be soon seeing sob stories of cross-straits reunification between separated families. Obviously, the opening of travel between Taiwan and China happened a long, long time ago, but, once more, we do well to remember Taiwan’s obscurity. There are people who may only now be hearing of Taiwan for the first time because of all the coverage of Taiwan in relation to China as a result of the Xi-Ma meeting!

Even if it is that nothing happens at the Xi-Ma meeting—and obviously nothing really will happen at the meeting—it is that in the sense the meeting is already a success where created perceptions are concerned. Because it is not to exaggerate the point to suggest that even iwhere state actors with highly involved interests in Taiwan-China relations such as the US who should know better, it is in fact that misconception can prevail. Taiwan may as a result of the Xi-Ma meeting be perceived as not so unfriendly to China. Because even if we have just seen the largest civil uprising in two decades against the possibility of Chinese encroachment in last year’s Sunflower Movement, forget not that Taiwan also voted Ma Ying-Jeou into power just two years before the Sunflower Movement!

If skewed opinion polls are now circulating to prove that apparently Taiwanese are not so opposed to the Xi-Ma meeting, this may be believed by the international community, and it would be thought just that Taiwanese are mercurial in their relation to China. It is that created perceptions, as will result from the Xi-Ma meeting, can have real-world implications—and dangerous ones.

Will Tsai Follow in Ma’s Footsteps?

YET IN THE end, even if the Xi-Ma meeting may be further damaging to the KMT’s election campaign for 2016 presidential elections and will not be damaging to Tsai’s presidential campaign, it is that this seems to have had an affect on Tsai Ing-Wen’s future foreign policy. Tsai has stated that she would not be unwilling to meet with Xi as president, and that she has not ruled this out of possibility. Ma has himself stated that he hopes this meeting would be the first of many meetings between a Taiwanese president and Chinese president—excuse me, the “leader of Taiwan” and the “leader of China.”

If political retrenchment was largely to be expected of Tsai after election, we may be seeing retrenchment on the part of Tsai quite prematurely. Much is uncertain. However, is it that she will be following in Ma’s footsteps not too soon from now? Tsai largely leveraged her campaign on calling for government transparency, but as the opposition, Tsai could have perhaps been more vocal in criticism of the KMT. That the KMT has held three or four press conferences to date but the DPP only one does not reflect well—and do these recent statements of Tsai may indicate the early warnings of a political turn? Tsai’s words are already being greeted with much disappointment by supporters.

The present task of Taiwanese civil society may be to demonstrate the Xi-Ma meeting in order to express that Taiwanese do not wish for cross-strait relations to be conducted on such grounds as we see at present. Demonstrations are being planned for Saturday to be concurrent with the Xi-Ma meeting as it happens in Singapore. But if the forces of the past year’s civic uprising have largely arrayed themselves behind Tsai, in the belief that a DPP presidency would be better for Taiwan than a KMT presidency, it was also long expected that this united front coalition behind Tsai would fracture after she was elected into office.

Indeed, activists of the Sunflower Movement were also quite critical of DPP attempts to co-opt the movement during the monthlong occupation of the Legislative Yuan, only for many of those same activists to later back a Tsai campaign as preferable to any KMT presence. But is it that sooner than we think, civil society will find itself at war with KMT and DPP alike?

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Author: Brian Hioe
Photo Credit: Michel Temer/Flickr
Biography: Brian Hioe (丘琦欣) is an M.A. student at Columbia University, a freelance writer on politics and social activism, and an occasional translator. He is a resident of Taipei, Taiwan.