By Steve Tsang.

In terms of cross-Strait relations, President Ma Ying-jeou’s second term did not really start last year when he assumed office. It has only just begun. The real change that drives the relationship does not happen in Taipei but in Beijing. The break came with Xi Jinping’s assumption of all three top offices in the People’s Republic of China and the Communist Party. While Beijing had long expected to ‘reap the benefits’ of a second term for Ma in improving cross-Strait political ties, former Chinese leader Hu Jintao’s top priorities in his last year of office did not include cross-Strait relationships.

The crux of the matter for cross-Strait relations in his second term is not what President Ma will do. He simply wants to keep this vital relationship on an even-keel and avoid any drama. It is what President Xi will do to make the most of Ma’s second term, seeing that Ma will not need to seek re-election again and the prospect of another Kuomintang administration in 2016 anything but a certainty.

Up to now Xi has not gone as far as one of his predecessors, Jiang Zemin, who made it clear he would not accept Taiwan’s refusal to deal with the issue of unification indefinitely. Jiang did not lay down a time-table for changing the cross-Strait status quo, but he made it clear that unification would have to happen in the not too remote future. This contrasts sharply with Hu Jintao’s approach, which was to embrace Taiwan as tightly as possible without forcing Taipei to start political negotiations.

Where does Xi stand?

The early indications are that President Xi has shown a personal interest in cross-Strait relations and that his position is somewhere between that of his predecessors. His articulation of a strong sense of personal confidence and confidence that China should be duly respected suggests that he is likely to take a more robust stance over Taiwan on all ‘sovereignty related’ issues.

Since Xi became President of the PRC, there are already two occasions when the more confident and assertive approach of Xi appears to have left its mark. They involve the management of the diplomatic truce between Taipei and Beijing, as well as allowing a bit more space for Taiwanese to take part in international dialogues.

The diplomatic truce is beginning to look a bit wobbly as President Ma went to the Vatican, Taiwan’s only diplomatic ‘ally’ in Europe for the enthronement of the new Pope. Departing from the spirit of the informal diplomatic truce hitherto, Beijing declared that it would require the Vatican to sever relations with Taiwan before it would establish full diplomatic relations with the Vatican. While a diplomatic breakthrough between Beijing and the Vatican is unlikely in the foreseeable future because of the issues of the ordination and loyalty of Catholic bishops in China, Beijing’s verbal volley could not have been released without Xi’s permission.

It has been reported that China took exception to President Ma using his Vatican visit to meet with leaders from countries that do not have diplomatic ties with Taiwan, including US Vice-President Joe Biden, and for taking his place under the banner of the Republic of China rather than Chinese Taipei. It is not possible to verify if such reports represent Xi’s views. However, if they do in general terms represent how Ma’s Vatican visit is being assessed in China’s Taiwan policy making establishment, it indicates a toughening of its interpretation of the meaning of the diplomatic truce.

Otherwise there is no reason why Beijing should take exception to Ma representing the Republic of China at a country with which Taiwan has full diplomatic relations.  Diplomatic protocol dictates that Ma be treated in accordance with his official capacity as President of the Republic of China, Taiwan’s official name. As to Ma’s exchanges with senior politicians from countries that do not have diplomatic ties with Taiwan, Beijing can choose how to deal with it, as these were polite encounters, not official meetings. In particular, unlike his predecessor Chen Shui-bian, President Ma clearly avoided using such encounters to needle Beijing.

In other words, there is plenty of scope for Beijing to ignore his Vatican visit. The fact that it did not reflects a stiffening in its interpretation of what the diplomatic truce implies. It is most unlikely that such a change could have happened without Xi’s acquiescence.

The second incident involves Beijing putting pressure on the Indonesian Government to withdraw the invitation to two Taiwanese scholars and two diplomats to take part in the Jakarta International Defence Dialogue. Beijing did not object to the Taiwanese participation in the same forum the previous year. Apart from the change in the Chinese leadership there is no other significant change that can convincingly account for this shift. The reduction in space for Taiwanese to take part in regional or international dialogues dovetails with the more restrictive interpretation of the diplomatic truce.

Two incidents like these, even though happening in close succession, should not be seen as concrete evidence of a change in policy in Beijing. But they do portend what to expect in the remaining three years of Ma’s second term.

This being the case, the Xi administration needs to be reminded of the political limits to what any President in Taiwan can do in opening political talks with Beijing. Without a basic consensus, and there is none in Taiwan beyond maintaining the ‘status quo’, no elected president or government can open negotiations that have an existential implication for Taiwan. Ma had indeed fought his last presidential election, but he is required by the Kuomintang not to lose the next general election. Hence, being a second term president does not imply he can afford to reach any deal with Beijing unless he can secure public endorsement for such a deal in Taiwan.

Steve Tsang is Director of the China Policy Institute and its Taiwan Studies Programme and Professor of Contemporary Chinese Studies at the University of Nottingham.

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