China’s Strategic Moves: Xi Jinping’s Meeting with Former Taiwan President

Srikanth Kondapalli

China’s President Xi Jinping met with Taiwan’s visiting former President Ma Ying-jeou in Beijing on April 10, 2024. This is their second meeting after they met in Singapore in November 2015, when Ma was the President of Taiwan.

Wang Huning (the top-most politburo standing committee member in charge of the Taiwan issue), Cai Qi, and other senior officials attended the meeting.

From April 1 to 11, Ma was leading 20 young people from the Taiwan region to the Chinese mainland for talks. The meeting at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing was the first time that a Chinese leader has met a former president of Taiwan on Chinese soil. Ma is considered more friendly to China than the current Taiwanese president, Tsai Ing-wen.

This meeting is seen as an effort by China to influence Taiwan’s politics. Ma visited Fujian, Xian, and other places. Last year, Ma visited China just before Taiwan went for presidential elections in January of this year but did not meet Xi.

Ma was Taiwan’s president from 2008 to 2016. In May 2008, Ma declared “no unification, no independence, and no use of force” and subsequently broadened economic ties and signed accords on direct postal, shipping, and air links. In 2010, chairman of Beijing’s Association for Relations Across the Taiwan Strait Chen Yunlin visited Taiwan, making him the highest-ranking Chinese official to visit Taiwan. Chen addressed Taiwan’s president as “Mr Ma”.

Ma also opened Taiwan for group tours from China. Initially capped at 300 visitors a day, the numbers quickly soared to 1.6 million mainlanders in 2011 (the total by 2011 was 7 million). This tourism led to $3 billion in Taiwan’s economy, an amount equal to 0.72 per cent of the island’s gross domestic product.

Ma proposed in June 2010 an Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement (ECFA) with China—a sort of free trade area proposal. Ma also expressed his opinion about joining the proposed Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP), although China had not viewed this with enthusiasm. ECFA led to massive opposition in Taiwan, mainly led by the youth, who spearheaded the Sun Flower Movement by occupying the Premier and other offices in Taipei. Their main accusation was that the ECFA is detrimental to Taiwan’s economy and that no oversight committee has been proposed for evaluating the ECFA.

In September 2010, Ma cobbled up confidence-building measures (CBMs) in the military field with China. In October 2011, Ma proposed a peace agreement with China through a referendum process.

All of these pro-China measures by Ma endeared him to the Chinese leadership, even though they backfired with the Taiwanese citizens.

While not addressing the current Chinese intimidating military exercises near Taiwan, Xi stated in his meeting with Ma’s entourage that “external interference cannot hold back the historical trend of national reunification.”

Further, Xi said: “All Chinese on both sides of the Strait should firmly oppose any separatist moves of secessionists on the island and interference by external forces, firmly safeguard the common home of the Chinese nation, and work together to pursue a bright future for peaceful reunification. The future of the Chinese nation should be firmly held in the hands of the Chinese people.”

Xi stressed in his speech that unification with Taiwan is part of the rejuvenation project. The speech is aimed at countering the United States, Japan, and other countries support for Taiwan as well as criticising the “independent” forces within Taiwan.

The current ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) is seen as moving towards independence, even though in the DPP’s two terms from 2000 to 2008 and 2016 until now, it has desisted declaring itself independent.

The DPP also rejected the ‘1992 consensus’ between Kuomintang (KMT), of which Ma was the Chairman, and China’s Communist Party (CCP). According to this, Taiwan and China belong to ‘one China’. China has said acceptance of the consensus is a precondition for resuming public dialogue with Taiwan. This is not acceptable to the current ruling DPP in Taiwan.

The DPP says that while the KMT lost its war to the CCP in 1949, it fled to Taiwan and practiced authoritarian leadership until 1986. A decade later, the first elections in Taiwan threw an altogether different generation that stresses Taiwan identity. Indeed, according to a National Chengchi University Election Study Center survey conducted in 2023, only 1.2 per cent of Taiwanese support unification with China.

A Pew Research Centre poll released earlier this year found that 67 per cent identify as primarily Taiwanese, while 28 per cent consider themselves primarily Taiwanese and Chinese, and only 3 per cent consider themselves primarily Chinese.

Identity in Taiwan is tied to politics. Those who consider themselves primarily Taiwanese are most likely to align themselves with the ruling DPP. Ma is thus trying to enhance the segment that supports the unification process.

The visit of Ma at this juncture is interesting. First, Lai Ching-te, the current Vice President and President-elect in January this year, will be taking the oath of office in May, and hence the timing of Ma’s visit to China is interesting. Lai’s party, the DPP, has lost the majority in the Legislative Yuan by a thin margin, and Ma’s KMT party could stall crucial legislation in the future.

Second, Japan’s Prime Minister Kishida and Philippines President Ferdinand Marcos are in the United States meeting President Biden. They possibly discussed China’s invasion scenarios of Taiwan, and possibly both will coordinate the security situation in the Taiwan Straits.

By meeting Ma at this juncture, Xi is also conveying a message of influencing cross-Strait dynamics. It is also interesting that the second Ma-Xi meeting comes on the 45th anniversary of the signing of the US Taiwan Relations Act into law, requiring Washington to take steps to help the island defend itself, including through arms sales, despite Beijing’s vocal opposition.

Third, an official KMT delegation is due to visit China in June, even though specific dates are not notified. This suggests that the KMT itself is in a huddle, given the Taiwanese predicament on the unification issue.

Fourth, Xi addressing select Taiwanese youth is also intended to carry the CCP propaganda into Taiwan and build a pro-China constituency, even though Ma returned home without any assurances from Xi that intimidating military exercises would be discontinued.

Srikanth Kondapalli is Professor in Chinese Studies at JNU.

The article was first published in First Post as Xi Jinping’s meeting with former Taiwanese president: Understanding cross-Strait dynamics on April 16, 2024.

Disclaimer: All views expressed in the article belong solely to the author and not necessarily to the organisation.

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Acknowledgment: This article was posted by Aasthaba Jadeja, a visiting researcher at IMPRI.