After China and Taiwan had considered the possibility of first-time talks between their leaders in early 2014, then Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou and his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping finally chose to meet in Singapore on November 7th, 2015.
On November 3rd, Ma’s spokesman had confirmed the meeting and told Taiwanese media that the intention of the visit was to “secure cross-strait peace”.
While the encounter coincided with Xi’s visit to the city state to mark 25 years of diplomatic relations between China and Singapore, Ma touched down for a one-day trip.
Apparently, the historic summit could have taken place up to a year earlier had it not been for a row over groundless pro-Peking espionage accusations against Chang Hsien-yao in August 2014.
At the time, Chang hold the position of Deputy Minister of the Mainland Affairs Council (MAC), the official agency in Taiwan which handles all matters related to the People’s Republic of China (PRC).
Manila seems to have been another option, but the capital of the Philippines was rejected by China as both countries were involved in a territorial dispute in the South China Sea.
The two leaders seemed relaxed as they shook hands for over a minute in front of reporters, then waved before entering a conference room at the Shangri-La Hotel with other members of their delegations.
Everything was carefully thought through by the participants, in order to preserve neutrality and avoid conferring any legitimacy on the other’s government. In consequence, Ma and Xi addressed each other as “mister” rather than “president”.
Ma emphasized that it wasn’t about who later hosted the dinner, at which boiled crab, fried asparagus and spicy noodles were served, but about enjoying a meal together.
According to Chinese tradition and to avoid the impression of spending too much public money, they even brought their own bottles of distilled liquor: Maotai from China’s Kweichow province as well as Kaoliang from Matsu and Kinmen, Taiwan’s outlying islets located very close to the mainland coast.
Afterwards they made sure the food bill and the cost of renting the location was evenly split between the members of “one family”, as Ma put it.
He said: “Even though this is the first meeting, we feel like old friends. Behind us is history stretching for 60 years. Now before our eyes, there are fruits of conciliation instead of confrontation.”
The Nationalists under Chiang Kai-shek (1887-1975) had to retreat to Formosa in 1949, after the Communists under Mao Tse-tung (1893-1976) took over China at the end of the civil war.
Until the summit between Wang Daohan (1915–2005) and Koo Chen-fu (1917-2005) in 1993, which also took place in Singapore, there had been no significant contact between the bitter ideological enemies whatsoever.
The most relevant subject discussed was the strengthening of the “1992 Consensus”, a tacit understanding between the Nationalist KMT and the Communist Party of China (CPC) that both sides of the Taiwan Strait acknowledge there is only “one China,” with each side having its own interpretation of what this means.
In that sense, it was decided to set up a cross-strait hotline to deal with emergencies, which became operational on 30 December 25th, 2015, though it was disrupted on June 25th, 2016.
The Red Mandarins weren’t amused when Taiwan’s new President Tsai Ying-wen from the China-skeptical Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) openly refused to accept the 1992 Consensus, which the pro-independence camp claims to never have existed anyway.
While Xi committed to speed up the agreed opening of representative offices in Taiwan and vice versa, this never happened. It turned out that they would have been very short-lived anyway.
Xi’s supposed approval of Taiwan’s extended participation in international organizations like the UN, as long as it didn’t go against his “One-China policy”, turned out to be a flash in the pan.
Since the DPP took over in May 2016, Sao Tome and Principe, Panama, the Dominican Republic, Burkina Faso, El Salvador, the Solomon Islands and Kiribati all broke off diplomatic relations and (re)established them with China.
Taiwan showed interest in joining the Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) in Peking, a potential Chinese rival to the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF).
This plan fell through when its president Jin Liqun in April 2016, even before the KMT had to relinquish power after losing the presidential elections in January, stated that if Taiwan wanted to join the bank it would need to have China’s Ministry of Finance apply on its behalf.
Although no agreement would be signed and no joint statement made, the event had sparked a media frenzy, with large groups of foreign journalists looming around in the days ahead.
The Taiwanese press was quite divided on the merits of their president’s endeavor. Some praised Ma’s efforts, while others said it just showed Taiwan’s subservience to China.
The Ma Ying-jeou Foundation, established in July 2018, on November 6th, 2020 organized an academic forum in Taipei to mark the fifth anniversary of the talks.
A day earlier, a similar activity was hold in Peking. Considering the current frosty bilateral relationship between Taiwan and China, such a rapprochement nowadays seems to be lost in time.
Unsurprisingly, the DPP accused Ma of indulging in nostalgia which runs contrary to society’s prevailing views and having gambled on Taiwan’s future by unilaterally betting everything to side with China.
Boosting his delusion of a second chance, Ma was likely implying an acceptance of the “One country, two systems” principle by which former colonies Hong Kong and Macau are ruled.
As Chinese military aircraft in the past month harassed Taiwan almost daily, it wouldn’t be appropriate for Ma to stage any event and even less to coordinate it with China, engaged in united front propaganda warfare.
Instead, the DPP demanded respect for political realities and the will of the Taiwanese people to allow a discussion over peaceful coexistence instead of forced “reunification”.
On the other hand, a confrontational stance and an overestimation of one’s own capabilities can lead to a very dangerous situation. Therefore, what happened exactly five years ago in Singapore has lost nothing of its relevance for the region and the whole world.