- - Thursday, November 5, 2015


The unanticipated Singapore meeting Saturday of Xi Jinping, the chairman of the Communist Party and the leader of the People’s Republic of China (Beijing) and Ma Ying-jeou, the chairman of the Kuomintang Party and leader of the Republic of China (Taipei) is at last an authentic bombshell in Asia. The Chinese government numbers its bombshells, which often are merely noise. It’s not only the first encounter of the two heads of rival Chinese states since the retreat of Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek to the island in 1949, but it shatters precedent on a number of other counts.

The Beijing regime has insisted that Taiwan institutions have no legitimacy, that the Taipei government is a rogue regime in rebellion against mainland China. Many nations have switched their diplomatic recognition to Beijing, but few call Taiwan illegitimate, and have kept — and cherished — their trade relationships with the island nation, which actually is a democratic republic. The People’s Republic of China is neither of the people nor a republic, but it’s big, noisy and prosperous. “When China spits,” as an old saying goes, “Asia swims.”

The U.S. link to Taiwan, essential to Taiwan’s continued survival and success, was enshrined in the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act. America’s formal acceptance of the Beijing de facto control of the mainland followed years of refusing to recognize a Communist regime. Much of that had come from Franklin D. Roosevelt’s insistence that Chiang’s China be accorded great-power status, including a veto on the United Nations Security Council, as a reward for enduring European colonialism and Japanese aggression. But the act, renounced by a reluctant Congress after President Jimmy Carter switched sides, not only maintains an American relationship with Taiwan, but assures it of continuing military aid including a promise to intervene if necessary to assure its survival.

Beijing made a tacit concession to Taiwan, and to the United States, with an offer of reunification under the suspicious promise of “one country, two regimes.” But it has never, until now, treated the Taiwan government as an equal. President Ma is carefully described only as Taiwan’s “leader,” and the Singapore summit this weekend is called a “pragmatic arrangement.” Reality is difficult for Marxists to deal with.

Nevertheless, Beijing’s agreeing to meet President Ma face-to-face is unprecedented, and explained by President Xi’s growing power in Beijing. As the onetime governor of a province facing Taiwan, he learned a lot about Taiwanese politics. His hard-charging takeover of the Communist Party as no leader has since Mao Tse-tung, emboldens him to take what other Communist officials would not have dared. By offering some measure of conciliation — although little of substance is likely to come of this particular meeting — he hopes to strengthen Beijing’s current pitch as a responsible member of the family of nations.

President Xi, perhaps more to the point, wants to help President Ma’s Kuomintang Party, which by all the polls and portents has collapsed in anticipation of January elections. The opposition Democratic Progressive Party has a long history of putting distance between Taiwan and the mainland, even suggesting independence, and now appears to be headed for a landslide victory. Whether President Xi’s gesture can change that is the subject of feverish speculation in Taiwan, where the unpopularity of the Kuomintang is linked to President Ma’s ambitious series of economic and political agreements with the mainland.

Student groups and other political activists have grown harshly critical of President Ma and his friendliness with Beijing. The growing friction between local interests in Hong Kong and Beijing has further influenced public opinion in Taiwan. The Beijing government repeated the promise of “one country, two regimes” to the British and Hong Kong.

This smoothed the 1997 return of the colony to China. But Beijing clearly didn’t intend to keep its word to preserve freedom of speech and equality before the law. Taiwan is a strategic factor in the American defense of the international sea lanes in the South China Sea. Taiwan has noticed. We hope the wise men in Foggy Bottom have, too.

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