This past weekend, Chinese President Xi Jinping and Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou gathered for a meeting, followed by a dinner, at the Shangri-La Hotel in Singapore. This unexpected meeting, announced only days before President Xi’s already scheduled official visit to Singapore, was the first time leaders from each country have met since 1945—when Chiang Kai-shek was president of China’s Nationalist government and Mao Zedong was the leader of China’s Communist movement.
Fighting for sovereignty of Mainland China in the wake of the collapse of the Qing Dynasty, the Nationalists and Communists suspended their civil war during World War II so the two sides could unite to fend off Japan. However, after prevailing against the Japanese, Chiang and Mao were unable to work out a political arrangement, leading to continued civil war. The Communists ultimately triumphed, forcing the Nationalists to retreat to Taiwan. Since this ousting, the democratic Taiwan—known as the Republic of China—and the communist Mainland China—known as the People’s Republic of China—have each declared themselves the official government of China. Beijing continues to claim Taiwan as an island province of the PRC, which it will unify with the larger Mainland by force, if necessary.
This sudden, yet potentially groundbreaking, encounter has led many to speculate on why the two sides have chosen to finally reconvene. Here is some context to better understand what is motivating each side:
Taiwan: Leading the modern Nationalist Party—or Kuomintang (KMT)—Ma has had closer ties to the PRC than his predecessors, having supported stronger economic ties and political relations with China during his presidency. This approach has enabled a more promising future relationship between the two sides. However, it has also crippled support from his constituency, as the KMT is steadily losing popularity among Taiwanese. Concerned that such economic ties are stealing jobs from the island, Taiwanese are expected to vote for the opposition, the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), as many expect the KMT to lose both the presidency and legislature in next year’s election. For these reasons, Ma could use a boost from showing strong leadership on strengthening relations with the Mainland—a possible incentive for his recent trip to Singapore.
China: Meanwhile, with an expected DPP victory in Taiwan on the horizon, Chinese President Xi is likely using this meeting to take advantage of Taiwanese trade opportunities while Ma and the KMT are still in power. Xi is surely seeking increased trade ties with as many partners as possible, as China braces for a predicted slowdown of its national economy. Such talks with Taiwan come at a time when China is also emphasizing improved trade relations with Japan and South Korea. President Xi also called for better strategic ties with Vietnam—likely motivated by the potential of increased economic partnership.
Improved bilateral economic ties between China and its Asian neighbors seem to be a theme of late. These relations have been rather strained over the past several years, as maritime territorial conflicts in the East and South China Seas have hindered trade ties between China and its counterparts. However, as China prepares for a potentially significant economic slowdown—complemented by increased pressure from recently finalized Trans-Pacific Partnership arrangements that do not include China—the rising giant is aiming to strengthen as many bilateral ties as it can. Xi’s meeting with Ma is likely the latest manifestation of this recent, yet consistent, trend.
No matter what factors motivated this meeting, the sheer reality that the two presidents convened at all is truly remarkable in the context of their 20th and early 21st century relationship. Regardless of the potential outcomes of such a meeting, when Xi and Ma came together this past weekend it was, no doubt, a moment for the history books. Yet, with so many hot-button issues fueling insecurities from both sides, this reconnection could very well be a big deal as the two look towards the future.
About the author:
David Solomon, a 2013 graduate of Skidmore College, lived in China for three years, where he pursued Mandarin language, history, political, and environmental studies at Tsinghua University, Beijing Foreign Studies University, and Suzhou University. He has also worked in Chinese economic development and has traveled extensively throughout China and other parts of Asia. David currently resides in Washington, D.C., where he works in U.S.-China trade relations.