Changing China

Giant on the move

A Hu-Ma summit in 2012?

October 19, 2009

When Taiwan President Ma Ying-jeou was elected ruling Nationalist Party (KMT) chairman in July, pundits jumped on the idea that he would use his new title to help secure a meeting with China’s President Hu Jintao. The first-of-a-kind summit would follow six decades of strained relations including China’s threats of military force against the island.

Ma’s new job, which he will take in mid-October, allows him to meet Communist Party Chairman Hu in a party-to-party role, laying aside each side’s presidential title. China does not recognise Taiwan’s presidency or other government institutions as it claims sovereignty over the self-ruled island.

Beijing’s state-run China Daily newspaper said such a meeting would signal “great reconciliation.”

A meeting would best take place in 2012, according to a KMT spokesman, Lee Chien-jung.

Before then, Ma will be wary of Taiwan’s divided public, Lee said. Taiwanese generally favour closer economic ties with China but oppose rushing into a relationship with the long-distrusted Communist government on fears that Beijing would compromise Taiwan’s self-rule, including its democracy. Ma will monitor opinion polls for any change in sentiment, the spokesman said, ruling out any meeting in the short term.

Ma could also be embarrased at home if Hu declined to acknowledge his title as president.

Odds of a meeting will surge in 2012 if Ma wins re-election by a big margin in March of that year, which would be an endorsement of China-friendly economic policies that have characterised his administration since he took office in May 2008.

“That interpretation wouldn’t be too far off the mark,” Lee said.

No doubt the KMT would also like to see political dividends from any momentum it can build ahead of the election for an expected summit that could occur if Ma were to win.

In an exclusive interview with Reuters on Monday, Ma said he would not exclude the possibility of meeting with China’s leaders one day, adding that there was no timetable for any such meeting. “At the moment, we have our hands full with economic issues,” he said.

Hu, expected to step down as president in 2013, might see 2012 as his last chance to meet Ma while in office — a historic moment that might qualify both sides for a Nobel Peace Prize.

Taiwan and China have tacitly agreed to lay aside issues of military tension, international space and sovereignty while they build up basic trust after 60 years of little or no official contact.

If the two sides break ice on these sensisitve political topics, in addition to the trade issues discussed to date, and can deliver any kind of tangible agreement beforehand, it would make sense for a summit 2012, said Raymond Wu, a political risk consultant in Taipei.

“If Ma’s political standing at home is solid and Hu is the undisputed centre of power, then yes, I think both would like to meet,” Wu said.

Photo: Taiwan President Ma Ying-jeou speaks in an interview with Reuters at the Presidential Office in Taipei on Oct. 19, 2009. REUTERS/Nicky Loh

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