Historic China-Taiwan Meet. What Next?

When, for the first time after 66 years, the leaders of China and Taiwan met with one another , we in the media have announced it as a momentous and memorable occasion. And rightly so.

But did this significant Saturday summit – between Chinese President Xi Jinping and Taiwan President Ma Ying-jeou – really help in achieving progress? Has this meeting really been a step forward, for both parties?

These are questions for which there are no easy answers. At least, not yet.

Since 1949 – when the island country of Taiwan (earlier called Formosa, and now officially termed ‘Republic of China’) separated from mainland China (officially called the People’s Republic of China) – there were strained relations between the two.

And, now, this meeting in the neutral-country Singapore, where the leaders met, does not seem to have lessened the political distance between the two.

So, evidently, the geographical distance of 180 kilometres, of Taiwan strait, which separates the island from the mainland is not the only hardest thing to bridge.

I had been to both, China and Taiwan. And I have seen that both, the people of the large single-party communist country as well as the people of the small democratic island nation, say they want unity. They want hostilities to end. But this, I believe, cannot be ended by mere symbolic meetings.

With shared language, history, and economic interests, there is a great scope for stronger bilateral ties but, quite clearly, China does not like the International recognition Taiwan is getting. It is still unwilling to recognize Taiwan as a separate nation.

In the press conferences that both sides held after their meet, the questions were tough, but it looked like both sides stuck to their scripts. And to status quo. Which seems unlikely to change in the near future.

If you look back at history, China’s Nationalists, known as Kuomintang (KMT), retreated to Taiwan in 1949 after losing the civil war to the Communists, who are still in charge in Beijing.

Both sides agree there is “one China” but both agree to disagree on the interpretation.

Beijing views the self-ruled-and-proudly-democratic Taiwan as a rebel province, to be brought under control by force, if necessary. And it warns that any movement towards formal independence could stoke conflict.

In fact, one of the Press questions Ma had to answer was whether he discussed with Xi the “missiles” that mainland China is known to have set-up pointing towards Taiwan.

Ma’s answer was vague: “I told Mr. Xi the concerns, misgivings, and hopes of the Taiwanese people, and asked him to take them seriously.”

However, in favour of Taiwan I must say that according to some observers, “Ma, a democratically elected leader, gave a real press conference, but Xi Jinping, appointed by the Communist Party’s rubber-stamp congress, did not”. In fact he sent Zhang Zhijun, the Minister of China’s Taiwan Affairs Office to face the Press. And the minister just read and answered from script.

Also, Ma’s press conference was not aired in China. Which shows how closely guarded China still is.

I liked the way Nikhil Sonnad of Quartz had described this censoring. “China probably didn’t want people seeing it for a few reasons. Maybe Communist Party leaders were afraid that Ma would say something taboo, or that Chinese viewers would hear Western journalists referring to Taiwan as a “country.” But more than anything, maybe they were just afraid of showing people in China how a democratically elected, Mandarin-speaking leader behaves at a real press conference”!

Over all, Ma’s words that while he was “not satisfied with Xi’s response on security and military issues, at least a dialogue had now begun” ring in some optimism.

However, Ma’s key opposition leader and Presidential Candidate for 2016 elections, Tsai Ing-wen, the leader of independence-leaning Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), said the meeting had “done nothing to make Taiwan’s people feel safer”.

“Only the majority public opinion on Jan. 16 can decide Taiwan’s future and cross-strait relations,” Tsai wrote, referring to ties with the mainland. And we must wait and watch.