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China-Taiwan: A rare alignment of interests

China-Taiwan: A rare alignment of interests

Tomorrow's meeting between President Ma of Taiwan (pictured) and President Xi of China in Singapore truly will be historic, and good history at that.

It is also a rare case in which the dual roles of national leaders as both statesmen and leading figures in their political parties (Ma Ying-jeou is no longer Chairman of the KMT but he is a senior figure) do not conflict but converge. So often in foreign policy, we hear that a particular leader could not take action due to 'domestic politics' (eg. the fear of losing popular support and/or alienating key constituencies in their party). But in this case both leaders have something to gain domestically by appearing statesmanlike, and this first meeting of the leaders of Taiwan and China is only possible because this rare alignment is in place for both Ma and Xi. 

For Ma, Taiwan's least popular elected president, now at the end of his final term, the meeting will be a major legacy moment. It will put Taiwan back in the international spotlight in a favourable way (a very hard thing for Taiwan to achieve), and it will be presented as the ultimate sign of success of Ma's signature policy over two four-year terms of warming up cross-Strait economic relations and reducing cross-Strait political tensions.

Domestically, Ma and the KMT's calculation may be that this meeting in Singapore will change the campaign dynamics of the January presidential and legislative elections in Taiwan. [fold]

Presently, it looks likely that the opposition party that favours greater Taiwanese autonomy from China, the DPP, will win the presidential election and for the first time ever also become the largest party in the Legislative Yuan. If that occurs, the KMT would be completely out of power at the national level for the first time in Taiwan's history. This meeting will focus the media spotlight back on cross-Strait relations, an area where the KMT has long thought (possibly mistakenly, as shown by the Sunflower Movement) it has a distinct advantage over the DPP. 

For Xi, the meeting will likely be presented as the first concrete success of China's policy of pursuing closer economic integration with Taiwan as a means of starting cross-Strait political negotiations. Xi and the Chinese Communist Party also likely share the KMT's hope that the meeting shifts Taiwan's electoral balance away from a double DPP win. Domestically, it also could enhance Xi's image as a strong leader willing and able to tackle problems and do things his predecessors shied away from.

Given Ma's two-month shelf life as Taiwan's leader, this rare alignment will likely be fleeting. If it backfires on the KMT electorally (or simply doesn't shift the present electoral trajectory), then the effects of the meeting will not last the year. There is no foreseeable way from either side of the Taiwan Strait for President Xi to follow up with a meeting with Tsai Ing-wen, the DPP's leader and presidential candidate. As is usual, domestic political realities may again trump the hoped-for outcomes of statesmanship.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user Jameson Wu.

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