Why Xi Jinping Is Meeting With Taiwan’s Ex-President

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When China’s leader, Xi Jinping, and then-President Ma Ying-jeou of Taiwan shook hands in Singapore back in 2015, they each extolled their meeting — the first top-level talks between the rival governments — as a breakthrough that could pave the way to a durable peace, ending decades of enmity.

But on Wednesday, as the two men met again in Beijing, the prospects for an amicable settlement over Taiwan’s future seemed more distant than ever.

Mr. Ma, who pursued closer engagement with China during his eight years in office, is no longer president of Taiwan. Fewer and fewer Taiwanese people now share his belief that Taiwan must see its future as a part of a greater China.

Since Mr. Ma left office in 2016, Mr. Xi has frozen high-level contacts with Taiwan, sought to isolate it on the global stage and tried to intimidate it with a tightening military presence around the island. Mr. Xi is profoundly suspicious of Taiwan’s current leadership, which has sought to assert the sovereignty of the island democracy.

Chinese state television confirmed on Wednesday that Mr. Xi and Mr. Ma were meeting, but gave no details. Earlier in the day, Eric Chu, the chairman of the Nationalist Party, which Mr. Ma belongs to, told reporters in Taipei that the event would be “a very important step in promoting peaceful exchanges across the strait.”

For Beijing, Mr. Xi’s meeting with Mr. Ma is part of a strategy to set its terms for dealing with Taiwan’s next leader: the president-elect, Lai Ching-te, whom Beijing describes as a dangerous separatist.

In recent months, China has signaled how it could squeeze Mr. Lai’s administration — militarily, economically and diplomatically. It has brushed off Mr. Lai’s offers to talk as insincere. On the other hand, Beijing has shown that it will court friendlier Taiwanese politicians, like Mr. Ma, who accept the framework for relations demanded by Beijing: that both sides accept that they are part of one China, even if they differ on what that means.

China’s “immediate focus is to push the incoming Lai administration to adopt a more accommodating political stance on cross-strait relations,” said Amanda Hsiao, the senior analyst for China with the Crisis Group, an organization that seeks to defuse wars and crises.

“Ma’s visit helps to underscore Beijing’s position that cross-strait dialogue is conditioned on acceptance of the idea that the two sides of the strait belong to ‘one China’,” Ms. Hsiao said. Within China, she added, “it’s also an attempt to signal to domestic audiences that the leadership has the issue under control, that they have not lost the hearts and minds of the Taiwanese.”

Taiwan and China have been at odds since the Communist revolution of 1949, when Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalist troops fled to the island and made it their redoubt. Over time, the Nationalists stopped being Beijing’s archenemy and became its preferred dialogue partner in Taiwan, particularly during Mr. Ma’s time in office. The two sides built economic ties and edged toward talks over their political status and future, culminating in Mr. Ma’s 2015 meeting with Mr. Xi.

But the Nationalists have lost the last three presidential elections to the Democratic Progressive Party, which has cast itself as a defender of Taiwan’s democracy and rejects Beijing’s claim to the island. Since Mr. Lai was elected in January, defeating a colleague of Mr. Ma, China has stepped up its pressure.

In January, it moved to peel away another diplomatic ally of Taiwan’s: Nauru, which had been one of the dozen or so states that still maintain formal relations with the island.

In February, Beijing sent coast guard ships to patrol the waters near a Taiwanese-controlled island off mainland China, after two Chinese fishermen died nearby while fleeing a Taiwanese coast guard vessel. China continues to buzz the skies near Taiwan with military planes almost every day, and many analysts expect the People’s Liberation Army to stage major exercises before, and especially after, Mr. Lai’s inauguration in May.

How tensions with Taiwan play out has bearings on China’s relations with the United States, the most important backer of Taiwan’s security. In a phone call with President Biden last week, Mr. Xi reiterated that Taiwan was of the utmost importance to Beijing, describing it as “the first red line that must not be stepped over in China-U.S. relations,” according to the official Chinese summary of their call.

“China will not sit back passively in the face of ‘Taiwan independence’ separatist activities and external encouragement and support for them,” Mr. Xi said.

By contrast, Chinese state media have highlighted Mr. Ma’s tour to make the case that Beijing has plenty of friends in Taiwan. The reports on Mr. Ma’s 11-day trip to China, with a delegation of Taiwanese students, have highlighted the group’s stops at heritage sites, with the students touring the Forbidden City and taking selfies on the Great Wall.

Mr. Ma’s itinerary is centered on one theme: that Taiwan is part of a greater Chinese nation, united by culture and history, if not politics. In northwest China, Mr. Ma paid his respects at a memorial to the Yellow Emperor, the fabled ancestor of the Han people, the dominant ethnic group in China and Taiwan.

“Most Taiwanese people have a rock-solid belief in identifying with the Chinese culture and nation,” Mr. Ma said in a statement he read out to reporters at the memorial. “I also hope that our young people from Taiwan can use this opportunity to better call to mind the roots of the Chinese culture and nation.”

Especially in retirement, Mr. Ma has become a vocal proponent of the view that Taiwan is historically and culturally part of China, and should accept that closer ties with the mainland are part of its destiny.

Those views, however, do not reflect broader Taiwanese sentiment.

Most Taiwanese people accept their island democracy’s ambiguous status quo of being self-ruled, but not recognized as an independent country by most governments. But they reject the idea of unification with China. Even within Mr. Ma’s Nationalist Party, many politicians, including its recent presidential candidate, Hou Yu-ih, have been notably more wary of China. And people in Taiwan increasingly describe themselves as exclusively Taiwanese, instead of Chinese.





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