The historical handshake between Xi Jinping and Ma Ying-jeou lasted 80 seconds. The presidents of the People’s Republic of China and Taiwan avoided using their official titles to address each other. Even though Taiwan’s President Ma later said that the handshake felt good, it did not affect the 66 years of separation between Taiwan and mainland China. That would have been too much to ask for – because nothing is straightforward about relations between Beijing and Taipei.
At the meeting, Chinese President Xi Jinping spoke of “one family” on both sides of the Taiwan Strait, yet no armistice agreement has yet been reached, let alone a peace treaty, which would officially mark the end of the Chinese civil war. Instead, Beijing has aimed around 1,000 medium-range missiles at its “family members” on the island.
Relationship has grown closer
China’s communist party has ideologically decentralized. Its power is more or less based on two promises: One is growing prosperity; the other, maintaining the unity of the country’s more than 50 ethnic minorities. The fact that Taiwan is an essential part of China has been part of the omnipresent propaganda that no Chinese politician can openly cast doubts on.
That is why Xi Jinping’s clear goal is reunification. Taiwan, however, has become accustomed to the status quo. No one there wants reunification. Taiwan has shied away from an open declaration of independence for fear of repercussions from Beijing. The Taiwanese greatly appreciate the advantages that go hand in hand with the lively democracy they have built up in only two decades. And ever since the dispute over election rights in Hong Kong arose, the idea of “one country, two systems” does not sound good to the Taiwanese.
At the same time, Taiwan and the People’s Republic of China are more closely intertwined than ever. In the past seven years, Ma has concluded no less than 23 agreements with the People’s Republic. Bilateral trade is now worth $170bn annually. Millions of Chinese tourists visit the island and Chinese students study at Taiwanese universities. But the island’s de facto independence could be lost due to a much too strong dependence on China.
A thinly veiled threat
This is also a reason why now, nine weeks ahead of presidential and parliamentary elections in Taiwan, the Taiwanese opposition, Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), has a lead over the ruling Kuomintang party. The DPP is rooted in the independence movement.
But even though Ma himself cannot run after having served two terms in office, he is still seeking to claim a special place in history. Ma would like to make the Kuomintang attractive to the electorate, as the party gets along well with its big brother to the north – all in the name of safety and prosperity. Beijing would also like to see the Kuomintang stay in power.
At a press conference after Xi and Ma’s meeting, Zhang Zhijun, Chairman of the Chinese Taiwan Affairs Office, even made comments that could be understood as a threat: he said the greatest danger to freedom at the Taiwan Strait originates from the forces that are striving for Taiwan’s independence. As a sign of goodwill, Xi offered the Taiwanese membership in the newly founded Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. It is questionable whether Taiwanese voters are impressed by this carrot and stick approach. In the past, whenever Beijing tried to exert influence on Taiwanese elections, the opposition always gained strength.