Xi and Ma in Historic Summit: Status Quo on Taiwan Persists…for Now

Last Saturday saw an unprecedented meeting between the respective leaders of the People’s Republic of China (PRC – Mainland China) and the Republic of China (ROC- Taiwan). Presidents Xi Jinping of the PRC and Ma Ying-jeou of the ROC shook hands and smiled for the cameras before their brief summit in Singapore, an historic but largely symbolic dialogue.

An historic handshake

Since the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) won the Civil War in 1949 and forced Chiang Kai-shek and his Kuomintang (KMT) comrades to flee to Taiwan, there has existed a very tense cross-Strait relationship between Beijing and Taipei whose rulers both claim their governments to be the true and sole representatives of all China.

Three serious ‘crises’ have broken out between the mainland and Taiwan since 1949. The first crisis occurred during 1954-5 when the PRC seized several islands from the ROC and conducted heavy shelling of KMT defensive positions. The US administration was so concerned by the aggression of the communists that the Joint Chiefs of Staff recommended dropping a nuclear bomb on the Chinese mainland, a suggestion fortunately dismissed by President Eisenhower.

In 1958, the PRC again resorted to heavy shelling of KMT positions on several disputed islands in the Tawain Strait. The ROC responded with their own artillery with the end result being 2,500 dead on the Taiwanese side, compared with 200 PRC troops killed. America intervened on the side of the ROC by providing them with howitzers and air-to-air missiles, honouring an agreement of mutual defence that had been signed after the first crisis four years earlier. The Soviets, too, put diplomatic pressure on Mao Zedong to halt his assault, fearing the American response should the conflict intensify.

Beijing did not react well to US involvement in the 2nd Taiwan Strait Crisis
Beijing did not react well to US involvement in the 2nd Taiwan Strait Crisis

For the next four decades an uneasy peace existed across the Taiwan Strait, with both the PRC and ROC largely concerned with ensuring domestic stability and (after Mao’s death at least) economic development. In 1992, a Consensus was reached between Beijing and Taipei that unequivocally stated that there was only one sovereign state encompassing all of China, the disagreement remaining over which government was the legitimate ruler.

This seemed set to cement the peace but its impact was almost immediately undermined. In 1995-6, trouble flared up again as the PRC embarked on a series of provocative missile tests in the coastal waters off Taiwan. A response to Taiwanese President Lee Teng-hui’s supposed agitation for independence – which of course went against the 1992 Consensus – Beijing’s actions prompted the Clinton administration to send two aircraft carrier groups into the Taiwan Strait, the biggest American military deployment in Asia since the Vietnam War. The PRC responded by undertaking live firing training drills in the build-up to Taiwan’s 1996 presidential election. The attempts to intimidate Taipei and the Taiwanese electorate failed, however, with Lee’s popularity receiving a boost in the aftermath of the scare.

Since 1996 the relationship has remained relatively stable, improving significantly during Ma’s tenure, with a renewed focus on economic engagement. This has led many Taiwanese to become increasingly wary about Ma’s intentions and his decision to meet with Xi in Singapore met with widespread disapproval back home. With only a few months remaining in office and no possibility of a further term given constitutional constraints, Ma’s gesture appears one of egotism designed to secure his place in history. For many Taiwanese, however, his diplomacy has simply led to a strengthening of the PRC’s hand and given the impression that Taipei’s resolve to oppose pressure from Beijing is failing.

Protesters took to streets across Taiwan in opposition to Ma's China diplomacy
Protesters took to streets across Taiwan in opposition to Ma’s China diplomacy

There was never any likelihood that the Xi-Ma summit would lead to significant policy change. In this respect, it is similar to the meeting that took place between Mao and Chiang Kai-shek at Chongqing in 1945. With the Japanese enemy defeated and World War Two ended, the US hoped that they could broker a peace deal between Mao’s communists and the Nationalist KMT government, which had been sporadically fighting a civil war for the best part of two decades.

The Double Tenth Agreement that arose from the three-month negotiations included the CCP concession that the KMT was the legitimate government of China and a declaration by the Nationalists that they recognised Mao’s group as an official opposition party.

Mao and Chiang raise a toast at their August 1945 meeting in Chongqing
Mao and Chiang raise a toast at their August 1945 meeting in Chongqing

Of course in reality neither party had any intention of stopping short of outright victory and the internal conflict would rage brutally for a further four years before Chiang eventually realised that his days were numbered and he escaped across the Strait where he would rule until his death in 1975.

There will come a time when the historical enmity between the PRC and ROC will explode again and it is likely to involve America when it does. At the moment the relationship is as strong as it is ever going to be, Ma’s efforts over the course of his presidency ensuring temporary peace even if it is at the expense of his people’s honour.

Make no mistake, though. The PRC views Taiwan as part of its territory and will ultimately be prepared to use force to secure this economically-vibrant island. When its leaders choose their moment, America will have a choice whether to enforce its traditional commitment to Taiwanese territorial integrity or allow a scenario similar to the one that resulted in Russia annexing Crimea from Ukraine last year.

Xi and Ma posed for the cameras, as Mao and Chiang did back in 1945. As with their predecessors, today’s leaders know that the status quo will not last forever.

China and Taiwan Enter New Era of Relations: American vigilance remains crucial for security

It was an historic day for the Chinese people; the People’s Republic (China) and the Republic (Taiwan) held high-level official talks for the first time since the Civil War ended in 1949. At the war’s conclusion, the defeated Nationalist forces of Chiang Kai-Shek fled the mainland for Taiwan where a rival government to that of Mao Tse-Tung’s communists in Beijing was established. Both sides have claimed to be the legitimate political representatives of the Chinese since, although it is the PRC that is internationally recognised.

Chiang Kai-Shek (l) fled to Taiwan after his Kuomintang were overthrown by Mao's communists
Chiang Kai-Shek (l) fled to Taiwan after his Kuomintang were overthrown by Mao’s communists

Relations between the PRC and the ROC have improved steadily over the past few years, with economic and communications ties expanding significantly. Ma-Ying Jeou’s reign as Taiwan’s Prime Minister has been characterised by attempts to improve relations with Beijing. Certainly, we have come a long way since the 1996 Taiwan Strait Crisis when Beijing contemplated taking control of the island by force, something it has never ruled out doing. Only the American promise of assistance to Taiwan in the event of an attack on Taipei secured the status quo.

Whilst today’s talks are not completely shocking given the current atmosphere of peace and stability in Sino-Taiwanese relations, it is an almost unthinkable evolution when looking back several decades. As long as Mao and Chiang ruled their respective territories there was no chance of rapprochement and the possibility of a renewal of civil war lurked menacingly.

Officially-sanctioned talks between China and Taiwan would have been unthinkable even 20 years ago
Officially-sanctioned talks between China and Taiwan would have been unthinkable even 20 years ago

In addition, the Americans and much of the Western world continued to see Chiang as the legitimate ruler of China and refused to engage with Beijing. Such a possibility was only contemplated after the Sino-Soviet split when the potential to undermine a greater enemy diluted the bitter taste of Mao’s atrocities and communist virulence. Prior to the United States’ official recognition of the PRC in 1979, the worry that it might get involved in another anti-communist intervention, such as those in Korea and Vietnam, was very real. Having Chiang and his Kumointang as ready-made replacements heightened the tension.

The US abandoned its Mutual Defense Treaty with Taiwan in 1980, although close military ties between Washington and Taipei persist with American arms sales a constant source of frustration in Beijing.

Shortly before Richard Nixon’s visit to see Mao in 1972, American Earl Ravenal made the following observation:

The logic is that alliance with Taipei and relations with Peking are mutually exclusive. And the facts are that our military support is unnecessary for the immediate defense of Taiwan, and the island in turn is unnecessary for the security of the United States and its regional interests.

Therefore, the military value of Taiwan is not a sufficient reason for upholding the indefinite partition of China. Yet the consequences of ending the alliance would be more significant than is generally appreciated, for it would not only signal abandonment of the containment of China but threaten the concept of collective security. (Earl C Ravenal, ‘Approaching China, Defending TaiwanForeign Affairs, October 1971)

Whilst state-to-state relations between the US and Taiwan no longer exist, unofficial ties between the two are strong enough to mean that the above statement still applies today.

American arms sales to Taiwan anger Beijing but are crucial for regional security
American arms sales to Taiwan anger Beijing but are crucial for regional security

Beijing may have softened its approach and rhetoric in dealing with Taipei, yet its ultimate goal of ‘One China’ remains. Without American vigilance and implied support for Taiwan’s sovereign integrity, the warming relations would soon freeze over.