Xi leverages former Taiwanese president to send signal to US

In this image taken from video by Taiwan's TVBS, Chinese President Xi Jinping at right meets with former Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou in Beijing on Wednesday, April 10, 2024 in a bid to promote unification between the sides that separated amid civil war in 1949. (TVBS via AP)
In this image taken from video by Taiwan's TVBS, Chinese President Xi Jinping at right meets with former Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou in Beijing on Wednesday, April 10, 2024 in a bid to promote unification between the sides that separated amid civil war in 1949. (TVBS via AP)

Summary

The island nation occupies a crucial place in Xi’s vision for the rejuvenation of the Chinese nation, and sits at the heart of increasing tensions between Beijing and Washington.

TAIPEI—Xi Jinping welcomed former Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou to Beijing on Wednesday, underscoring the Chinese leader’s preoccupation with Taiwan as Washington hosts a summit with the two Asian allies most likely to be pulled into a conflict around the island.

Reports and images of the meeting in Beijing were carried by state broadcaster China Central Television and by Taiwanese media on Wednesday, showing Xi and Ma shaking hands and exchanging remarks touting the prospects for improved relations across the 100-mile-wide Taiwan Strait that separates Taiwan from mainland China.

“Both sides of the Taiwan Strait are Chinese people," Xi said, according to the footage, saying that he “highly appraises" Ma’s efforts in promoting cross-strait ties. “There is no problem that cannot be discussed. There is no force that can separate us."

Nearly a decade earlier in 2015, a historic meeting between Xi and then-President Ma in Singapore—the first between leaders of the two rival regimes since the Communist victory in the Chinese Civil War in 1949—marked a high point in cross-strait relations.

This time, with Ma out of office for eight years and his party in the political wilderness, the handshake between the two men is being watched more closely as a symbolic maneuver by Xi in the run-up to the inauguration next month of a new administration in Taipei that is deeply inimical to Beijing.

Remarks that Ma made in the lead-up to Taiwan’s presidential election in January, in which he argued that Taiwan should trust Xi in order to maintain peace, caused an uproar on the democratically self-governed island, and was regarded as having helped his Nationalist Party, or Kuomintang, lose its third presidential election in a row.

Geopolitical analysts don’t think Wednesday’s meeting between Xi and Ma will do much to alter the trajectory of cross-strait relations, citing Ma’s diminished influence in Taiwanese politics. Still, they said Beijing could use the visit to signal to its people that its Taiwan policy is working. 

“What they’re saying is, ‘We have not lost the hearts and minds of the Taiwanese people. There remains cultural and historical connections that bind us,’" said Amanda Hsiao, a Taipei-based analyst at International Crisis Group. “This is Beijing telling its people, ‘We remain in control of the Taiwan situation, and unification is still possible.’"

Taiwan occupies a crucial place in Xi’s vision for what he calls the rejuvenation of the Chinese nation, and sits at the heart of increasing tensions between Beijing and Washington. Communist Party leaders in Beijing view Taiwan as part of its own, despite having never ruled there, and have vowed to take control of it, by force if necessary.

Beijing has increased its threats around Taiwan, part of a more aggressive foreign policy that has rankled abroad while feeding a nationalist fervor at home. But lately, with China’s economy still struggling to shake its pandemic hangover, its leadership is pulling back from diplomatic conflicts as it concentrates on reviving growth.

On Wednesday, Taiwan’s Mainland Affairs Office, which handles relations with Beijing, objected to Xi’s remarks to Ma, saying: “The difference across the strait does not lie in language or culture, but in political system and ways of life." The statement called it “regrettable" that Ma didn’t convey Taiwan’s commitment to democracy despite increasing Chinese pressure.

The Xi-Ma meeting comes just a day before President Biden hosts a trilateral meeting with Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida and Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr.at the White House, a first of its kind involving the U.S. and two key strategic partners in China’s immediate neighborhood. The Taiwan issue is expected to be high on the agenda, given Japan and the Philippines’ heavy U.S. military presence and their proximity to Taiwan.

The Xi-Ma meeting also came on the 45th anniversary of the U.S.’s enactment of the Taiwan Relations Act, which has governed ties between Washington and Taipei since the U.S. formally switched its diplomatic recognition to Beijing in 1979.

Su Chi, a former top national security official in Ma’s Nationalist Party, told an audience in Taipei on Wednesday that Xi was likely seeking to use the Ma meeting to send a reassuring signal to Washington at a time of geopolitical turmoil.

“It’s for him to send a message to Biden, whose hands are tied down by an election, by Ukraine and by the Gaza Strip," said Su, who is seen as one of the chief proponents of the longtime cross-strait status quo in which Beijing and Taipei were able to strike a tentative detente.

“You don’t have to worry about the Taiwan Strait. At least I’m not giving you any trouble on this. My approach to Taiwan is still peaceful," Su said, paraphrasing the message he believed Xi was trying to send the White House.

Ma’s visit to China follows a groundbreaking trip that he made to the mainland last year, when he became the first former Taiwanese leader to visit China since 1949.

This time around, Ma added another item to his list of firsts, marking the only time that a former Taiwanese leader has met a current Chinese leader on Chinese soil. Wednesday’s handshake with Xi marked the high point of an 11-day journey that included stops in the southern Chinese metropolis of Shenzhen; the hometown of party founder Sun Yat-sen in Zhongshan; and the historic Chinese capital of Xi’an.

Beijing extended the invitation to Ma following his television interview with German broadcaster Deutsche Welle days before January’s presidential election, according to a person familiar with the matter.

Ma’s call for the Taiwanese public to trust Xi caused a fierce backlash in Taiwan against Ma and his party. However, the reaction was completely different in Beijing, the person said.

After the clip of Ma’s interview was shown to Xi and his top lieutenants, the officials were said to have been deeply moved by the former Taiwanese president’s remarks, leading to the invitation for Ma to visit Beijing.

Although Ma is seen as a marginal figure in Taiwanese politics as his calls for closer ties with China increasingly fall on deaf ears, he is still seen by many as Beijing’s best bet for promoting its goal of peaceful unification.

“Ma Ying-jeou has established a certain degree of mutual trust with mainland China," said Chang Wu-ueh, who teaches international relations at Taiwan’s Tamkang University. “Beijing still regards him as a so-called leading figure who can, through such a dialogue between Xi Jinping and Ma Ying-jeou, express Beijing’s policy toward Taiwan."

“Beijing is trying to show for an international audience that they are open to dialogue with Taiwan—open to peaceful unification," added Hsiao of International Crisis Group. “All of which is an attempt to try to make China appear more reasonable."

Other details of Ma’s itinerary were redolent with political symbolism. While in Beijing, he paid tribute at a memorial to China’s fight against Japanese aggression in World War II—a pointed gesture as Biden hosts the Japanese prime minister.

Hsiao also noted the timing of Ma’s visit, coinciding with the Qingming Festival, also known as Tomb-Sweeping Day, a traditional holiday celebrated on both sides of the Taiwan Strait in which families honor their forebears.

“There’s a sort of direct reference there to shared ancestry," she said.

Still, recent polling in Taiwan shows that only a vanishingly small percentage of the public—roughly 2.4%—regard themselves as purely Chinese, as opposed to Taiwanese or other variations.

Ma wasn’t the only guest in Beijing during a busy week for Chinese diplomatic efforts. Officials in the Chinese capital also rolled out red carpets for U.S. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen, who departed on Tuesday, and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, who scored a meeting with Xi.

Meanwhile in Taipei on Wednesday, Taiwanese President-elect Lai Ching-te of the ruling Democratic Progressive Party also sought to grab a piece of the spotlight, introducing members of his incoming cabinet, including his premier and deputy premier. Other key positions, including Lai’s defense and foreign ministers, are expected to be announced in the coming weeks.

Write to Joyu Wang at joyu.wang@wsj.com

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