For the first time in more than 66 years, the leaders of both China and Taiwan met face-to-face last Saturday. The meeting was without a doubt symbolic, and unfortunately that seem to be just that. Symbolic. While both sides affirmed the 1992 Consensus that has kept the peace, the meeting largely consisted of an exchange of hands, niceties and vague promises. The ensuing press conference and reaction back in each leaders’ respective homelands was, however, much more revealing.
For President Ma Ying-jeou, the press conference went exactly as it would for any other democratic country: the media threw hardballs and he was forced to confront a number of thorny issues.
During the conference, Ma was asked about the issues of ballistic missiles aimed at Taiwan. In response, Ma said Xi had assured him that said missiles were not pointed at Taiwan at all, in spite of the fact that publicly available info from the Pentagon asserts that China’s Second Artillery Force is “prepared to conduct missile attacks and precision strike against Taiwan,” and goes on to estimate that the number of missiles is in the thousands.
Naturally, a reporter from Taiwan’s Central News Agency pressed for details, asking, “Did you or did you not make explicitly clear to Mr. Xi that these deployments should be removed?” Quartz goes on to report that Ma subsequently tried to duck the question, responding that he had “told Mr. Xi the concerns, misgivings, and hopes of the Taiwanese people, and asked him to take them seriously.” Another reporter commented that Ma’s request to remove the offending war heads had “fallen on deaf ears.”
The New York Times reported in its own coverage that Ma later told reporters on his plane that he was dissatisfied with Xi’s assertion that the Chinese missiles were not aimed at Taiwan.
But while Ma was faced with difficult questions, the Chinese delegation faced a much friendlier reception. Firstly, Xi Jinping was noticeably absent from the mainland press conference, and in his stead was Zhang Zhijun, the minister of Taiwan Affairs Office. Secondly, unlike Ma his presentation was heavily scripted, consisting mostly of a lengthy speech. Thirdly, he was faced with only three questions taken from three pro-China news outlets:
1. Xinhua News Agency (China): How would you evaluate the impact and importance of this summit on present and future cross-strait relations?
2. China Review (Hong Kong): Official status and naming is always a challenge in cross-strait relations. How did you resolve that challenge for this summit?
3. Want Want China Daily (Taiwan): With only 70 days until Taiwan’s national election, what is the purpose of holding this summit now? Will summits like this one continue in the future?
On top of that, CCTV chose not to broadcast the Taiwanese press conference, and official media instead only carried summaries, although at the moment a full transcript in Chinese can be found on Weibo.
The reaction at home was also telling. Tsai Ing-wen, the Democratic Progressive Party’s front-runner in next year’s election, criticized Ma for failing to push for recognition of a democratic and sovereign Republic of China.
Meanwhile a poll conduct by United Daily News reports that while 37.1% were satisfied by Ma’s handling of the meeting, 33.8% were not. The same poll also echoed earlier data, showing that two-thirds of respondents indicated that they would support Tsai Ing-wen in January’s elections. It would seem that while the Taiwanese tentatively support the meeting, there is still a healthy dose of skepticism and wariness.
The reaction by Mainland Chinese new outlets was decidedly much more positive. Caixin, for example, emphasized how both Ma and Xi reaffirmed commitment to the 1992 Consensus, while praising the talks because they, “touched upon sensitive issues linked to international affairs and security.” This is in spite of the fact that the only thing agreed upon outside of the 1992 Consensus was a vaguely worded pledge by Xi to “deal with individual situations as long as they will not give the impression that there are two Chinas or one China and one Taiwan.”
The Global Times, on the other hand, was much more pointed in its commentary, declaring any pretense to Taiwanese sovereignty as both delusional and naive and arguing that “Taiwanese society should accept reality, being aware that no one in Taiwan can change it, and no international forces, including the US, can help change reality.”
— ジェームス (@jmstwn) November 7, 2015
So in sum, many people clearly see the meeting as a step in the right direction, albeit only a small one.
By Stanley Yu