China-Taiwan summit: Empty symbolism or game changer?

Presidents of Taiwan and China to meet
chinese president xi jinping taiwan president Ma Ying jeou meet rivers intv nr _00002510

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  • Meeting isn't likely to be a game changer for Taiwan and China relations
  • Beijing might be trying to influence election in Taiwan's rowdy democracy

J. Michael Cole is a Taipei-based senior non-resident fellow with the University of Nottingham's China Policy Institute, an associate researcher with the French Centre for Research on Contemporary China (CEFC), and editor-in-chief of thinking-taiwan.com — which is affiliated with the Thinking Taiwan Foundation founded by Taiwan presidential candidate Tsai Ing-wen. The opinions expressed here are solely his.

Taipei (CNN)The oft-neglected island-nation of Taiwan was at the center of international news this week after it was announced that its President, Ma Ying-jeou, and his Chinese counterpart, President Xi Jinping, will hold a summit in Singapore on Saturday.

Described as "historic," the meeting—the first between the leaders of the two sides of the Taiwan Strait since 1949, when Mao Zedong's Communists defeated Chiang Kai-shek's Nationalist forces in a brutal civil war, forcing Chiang and more than a million Nationalists to flee to Taiwan—promises additional drama ahead of Taiwan's upcoming presidential elections and could have repercussions on future relations between Taiwan and China.
Under the auspices of the Singaporean government, Mr. Xi and Mr. Ma—who will address each other as such—will meet in what officials in Taipei and Beijing have optimistically described as a sign of continued stability in the Taiwan Strait following seven years of rapprochement.
No sooner had news of the upcoming summit been confirmed than analysts worldwide began trying to determine the significance of the landmark meeting:
Would it fundamentally alter the face of cross-strait relations? Would it have an impact on the January 16 presidential and legislative elections, in which Ma's Kuomintang (KMT) party is expected to do poorly?
Or was it a purely a symbolic exercise, perhaps an eleventh-hour desperate act by Beijing to influence the domestic politics of the rowdy democracy it claims as its own and help its embattled ally in Taipei?
Geopolitically speaking, the meeting could be part of Beijing's recent efforts to assuage fears within the region, caused in part by mounting tensions in the South China Sea due to Beijing's territorial claims, and to demonstrate its willingness to talk with its regional partners—Taiwan included.

Election link?

Still, given the sensitive timing, it is difficult not to see a link between the upcoming summit and the January elections.
After all, Chinese and Taiwan authorities have had seven years of rapprochement to make this happen, and Xi will be sitting down with a leader who, come May 20 next year, will be out of office.
So why now, is the question on everyone's mind at the moment.
If, as Beijing has indicated, the purpose of the summit is to institutionalize cross-strait meetings and improve relations between the two sides, then it would be far more logical for Xi to seek a meeting with Ma's likely successor, Tsai Ing-wen of the opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), who has been well ahead in the polls largely due to her active focus on domestic matters and general disenchantment with the KMT.
The fact of the matter is, the unpopular KMT is in dire straits.
It has been struggling to regain its footing in the election after two very difficult years marked by major protests over a services trade pact with China and a disastrous showing in local elections held late last year, in which it lost control of most municipalities across Taiwan.
Its current travails were highlighted on October 17 when the party replaced its highly unpopular presidential candidate, Hung Hsiu-chu, who had campaigned on a platform seeking even closer ties with Beijing, with the more palatable party chairman, Eric Chu, a move that so far has only had a marginal impact on the KMT's prospects in the elections.
It is therefore likely that Beijing calculated it needed to do something high-profile enough to help the KMT, its favorite partner in Taipei.
And the one area in which it could provide such assistance to the KMT was on the China "issue," over which it is perceived to have an advantage over the more "pro-independence" DPP.
Protesters shout slogans with placards opposing the planned meeting of Taiwan's President Ma Ying-jeou with his China counterpart Xi Jinping in Taipei, Taiwan, Wednesday, Nov. 4, 2015.
Nothing could help reinforce the commonly held notion abroad that the KMT is better positioned to ensure peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait—and conversely that the DPP would undermine such efforts—than for the two heads of state to be seen together.
Ma was keen to play up the international angle to his upcoming meeting during a press conference on Thursday morning, which the entire foreign diplomatic community in Taipei was invited to attend.
And by sheer coincidence, the Ma-Xi meeting will take place three days before Chu, the KMT's presidential candidate, embarks on a U.S. trip, during which discussions on his China policy are expected to take place.
Yet such intervention in Taiwan's affairs is probably too little, too late, and will not give the KMT enough momentum to dislodge Tsai. It is also a gamble that could backfire, especially if the summit is perceived as a plot by Beijing and the KMT to molest Taiwan's democratic processes.
It doesn't help either that by meeting Xi, Ma will be breaking an earlier promise, made during his re-election campaign in 2011, that he would not meet with a Chinese president while in office unless he had the public approval to do so. Such public approval doesn't seem to exist at the moment.
Although a majority of Taiwan residents favor dialogue with China and are amenable to the liberalization of ties with the next-door powerhouse, they recoil at the idea that such efforts may be exploited for partisan politics and electoral purposes.

No game changer

Thus, while highly symbolic and "historic" for the fact that the leaders on both sides of the Taiwan Strait will be meeting for the first time in 66 years, Saturday's summit won't be a game changer—unless it is mishandled badly and causes an uproar back in Taiwan.
But that is unlikely.
Already, Taipei and Beijing have stated that no agreement will be reached during the meeting, and that no joint press conference will be held. This is probably wise, as anything beyond symbolism, any commitment that forces the future leader of Taiwan to deal with a fait accompli, would spark a backlash in Taiwan and threaten to further erode the KMT's appeal.
It that is indeed the strategy behind the meeting, it is an ill-advised one that will cause serious complications down the road.
By now, Beijing probably understands (or certainly should understand) Taiwan's democracy well enough to know that rash moves will be counterproductive, as it discovered in 1996 when it bracketed the island-nation with missiles before the first direct presidential election there.
One consequence of the rapprochement that occurred during Ma's time in office is that the Taiwanese have become much more sensitive to any move by Beijing or the KMT that threatens to undermine the liberal democratic way of life they cherish.
Such alertness, which manifested itself last year during the Sunflower Movement, has also become sharper due to recent political developments in Hong Kong, the Special Administrative Region of China. that serve as a warning to Taiwan of what could happen if they allow Beijing to take control of their destiny, or if one of their leaders hands over the keys to the Chinese leadership.
Unless it is ready to undo seven years of détente, which for the most part has been beneficial to Beijing, and alienate Taiwan, Beijing will have to act with restraint. Therefore, those who look for a game changer on Saturday stand to be disappointed.