December 2015: Taiwan Politics in Brief

Historic Ma-Xi Meeting Draws Mixed Reaction

It was a brief meeting arranged on short notice, an hour of closed-door talks followed by a sumptuous banquet. But when Chinese President Xi Jinping and Taiwan’s President Ma Ying-jeou met in Singapore on November 7, the first encounter between Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and Kuomintang (KMT) leaders in seven decades, the historical significance was enormous.

Heavy on symbolism but light on substance, the summit began with a handshake that lasted for more than a minute, as both men smiled broadly. Then Xi, in a short public speech, said the summit would open a new chapter in relations between Taiwan and China. “No force can ever pull us apart because we are brothers who are still connected by our flesh even if our bones are broken,” he said. “We are a family where blood is thicker than water.”

Ma followed by saying that continuation of the “1992 consensus” – an understanding allegedly reached by Taiwan and China in 1992 to accept the principle of “one China” but with each side free to interpret that principle in its own way – would maintain peace in the Taiwan Strait. The 1992 consensus, which the opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) does not accept, was also enthusiastically endorsed by Xi.

Ma also proposed, and Xi reportedly agreed to, establishment of a hotline between Taiwan’s Mainland Affairs Council (MAC) and China’s Taiwan Affairs Office (TAO) to handle emergencies. Following the closed-door talks, according to TAO head Zhang Zhijun, Xi welcomed Taiwan’s participation in the China-backed Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) under an appropriate name. In addition, Ma said he raised the issue of China’s coastal missile deployments facing Taiwan, with Xi responding that the missiles were not targeting Taiwan in particular.

As China considers Taiwan to be a renegade province, it was a rare goodwill gesture for Xi and Ma to be treated as equals. Xi was formally described as the “leader of the mainland side” and Ma as the “leader of the Taiwan side.” Avoiding titles, the two leaders addressed each other as “Mr.”

But Xi delivered a veiled warning to the DPP, which is widely expected to win the presidency in elections in mid-January. While indicating he is willing to give Taiwan flexible and respectful treatment if a future government loosely accepts that it is part of China, Xi cautioned that cross-Strait relations could cool significantly if it fails to do so. Zhang quoted Xi as saying the greatest threat to peaceful cross-Strait development is “Taiwan independence forces, instigating splittist activities and inciting compatriots’ enmity and opposition.”

Public opinion in Taiwan toward the summit was decidedly mixed. Many welcomed what they saw as an opportunity to further improve cross-Strait relations, but others feared an undermining of Taiwan’s sovereignty and disapproved of Ma taking such a major initiative just months before leaving office. Several hundred protesters marched to the Presidential Office, waving placards with slogans such as “Save democracy and don’t sell out our country.” The DPP did not take part in the protests, but its presidential candidate, Tsai Ing-wen, lambasted Ma for boxing in Taiwan’s choices regarding future cross-Strait relations.

Vice Presidential Candidates Chosen

Jennifer Wang, running mate on the KMT ticket

All three candidates vying for the presidency in 2016 chose running mates from outside of their respective parties.

Kuomingtang (KMT) candidate Eric Chu selected lawyer Jennifer Wang, who served as Council of Labor Affairs minister from 2008 to 2012. A political independent, Wang has earned a reputation for her work with underprivileged and women’s groups, but as minister came under fire for her handling of labor relations with former textile and electronics workers.

Chen Chien-jen, running mate on the DPP ticket

Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) candidate Tsai Ing-wen turned to vice president of Academia Sinica Chen Chien-jen, a former minister of health from 2003 to 2005, as her running mate. Chen, an epidemiologist who studied and taught at universities in both Taiwan and the United States, is widely credited with steering Taiwan through the SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) epidemic of 2003 that afflicted much of East Asia. Like Wang, Chen has not previously had any party affiliation.

James Soong, the candidate for the underdog People First Party, will be running on the same ticket as Hsu Hsin-ying, the chairperson of the newly formed Minkuotang (also known as the Republican Party). Hsu quit the KMT last March to form the Minkuotang, and will resign her seat in the Legislative Yuan to seek the vice presidency.

With partisan politics hardening, all three candidates are emphasizing their ability to work harmoniously with their rivals, and hope their choice of running mates will demonstrate their spirit of cooperation across party lines.

Hsu Hsing-ying, running mate for the PFP party

Taiwan Noticed by U.S. and Islamic State

After the recent terrorist attacks in Paris on November 13, U.S. President Barack Obama listed Taiwan as part of the international coalition against the Islamic State (ISIS) terror group during his speech at the East Asia summit in Malaysia. Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokeswoman Eleanor Wang expressed gratitude for the U.S. recognition of its efforts, but noted that Taiwan’s support, valued at roughly US$10 million, was for humanitarian purposes only. In addition to financial aid, Taiwan provided portable houses, LED lamps, and medical supplies for refugees. The expression of appreciation by the United States did not escape the notice of the Islamic State, which included the ROC flag on its website of countries that it regards as unfriendly.