BEIJING — The setting is Singapore, where the two sides had a semi-official contact in 1992, giving the news a pleasant whiff of nostalgia. The summit on Saturday between Ma Ying-jeou of Taiwan and Xi Jinping of China is historic indeed: It is the first meeting between leaders of both sides of the Taiwan Strait in the 66 years since the establishment of the People's Republic of China.
But context matters. The move comes just two-and-a-half months before Taiwan holds its presidential election. Two years ago Ma Ying-jeou expressed his wish to meet his counterpart from China. Yet his hopes of joining the informal APEC summit held in Beijing last September were dashed. Following that, Taiwan's local elections last year in 22 cities and counties led to a landslide win for Taiwan's main opposition party, the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP). Ma was thus obliged to step down as chairman of the nationalist Kuomintang party. Meanwhile, ahead of the Jan. 16 presidential election, the DPP candidate Tsai Ying-wen leads in the polls.
More than anything, this Taiwanese electoral context is why the news about the meeting of the two leaders came as such a surprise to the public in both countries.
Sense of urgency
Relations across the Taiwan Strait are playing an important role in the current campaign, and it goes without saying that the two leaders both feel a sense of urgency to proceed with this historic move that can serve as an "anchor" in establishing a framework for future negotiations.
Looking back in Taiwan, the island has gone through turbulent moments in the past couple of years. In March 2014, the so-called Sunflower Student Movement took shape, largely built in opposition to the Cross-Strait Service Trade Agreement negotiation open up trade in services between the two economies.
Long gone was the optimism of cross-strait ties in the wake of Ma's election in 2008, and the subsequent Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement. Not only did the ruling Nationalist Party and Ma's government back down in the face of the student movement, postponing the service trade negotiation indefinitely, but even the ongoing talks over trade in goods and merchandise lost impetus.
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Collage of Taiwan's Sunflower Student Movement — Photo: KOKUYO
Other factors in the past year have further dampened cross-strait relations. For example, China announced four new civil flight routes very close to Taiwan. In addition, no consensus was reached for Taiwan's accession to the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, and clashes were triggered by China's changing the "Taiwan Compatriot Travel Certificate" from a visa-like paper to an identity card.
More generally, the market shares of Taiwanese products in mainland China have continued to shrink while the Chinese economy has remained relatively strong. All of this gives the impression to the Taiwanese that China is more a threat than an opportunity.
It is under this context that the leading opposition candidate, Tsai Ying-wen of the DPP, does not acknowledge a "1992 Consensus" — a reference to the unofficial meeting 23 years ago in Singapore in which agreement was found around the concept that there is only one China. Tsai, in other words, is convinced that she can win January's election without making political compromise to China.
What would happen if all progress in recent decades were suddenly reversed? Beyond the economic hit, the countries would risk undoing agreements about Taiwan's "international space," as well as the mutual tacit understanding surrounding the handling of the Diaoyu Islands and other South China Sea issues.
Frankly, cross-strait relations have long ago lost positive momentum. And this, above all, is why Ma and Xi agreed to the historic meeting. Even if he isn't able to sway the upcoming election through the summit, Ma will set up a model on cross-strait relations for his successor, whatever party the winner belongs to.
As for Xi Jinping, meeting with Ma Ying-jeou while he is still in office reaffirms his strong will that "the longstanding political differences are to be resolved step-by-step, and are not to be passed on to generation after generation," as he declared two years ago.
The tide of history pulls us forward. The summit not only effectively ends the standing clash of the two civil war foes, but also lays a path for the cross-strait relations for the foreseeable future.