NEW YORK – The United States and Europe have spent the last week focused on Islamic State, but the possibility of conflict between China and Taiwan is far more dangerous to the world’s security. An important development took place Nov. 7, when Chinese President Xi Jinping met for a historic summit with Taiwanese leader Ma Ying-jeou.
The meeting has been variously interpreted. But the best read is that it was a warning from China to Taiwanese voters not to move toward independence. That’s particularly worrisome, because Ma’s nationalist Kuomintang Party (KMT) is widely expected to lose upcoming elections to the independence-minded Democratic Progressive Party (DPP).
Although China and Taiwan have deep trade ties, this was the first public encounter between the leaders of the two countries since Mao Zedong and Chiang Kai-shek met for talks in 1945. It was therefore calculated on both sides to have maximum public effect. And it matters, in symbolic political terms at least, that Xi is the heir to Mao’s leadership of the Communist Party while Ma is head of Chiang’s KMT.
It’s also crucial to understand that while Xi has already consolidated power more than any Chinese leader in 30 years, Ma’s star is on the wane — and the fortunes of the KMT are declining in tandem.
Ma isn’t running for a third term, and KMT candidates have been struggling in opinion polls when paired against DPP leader Tsai Ing-wen. In mid-October, with its candidate polling under 16 percent to Ing-wen’s nearly 47 percent, the KMT switched horses, choosing Eric Chu as its new candidate. But a poll later in the month showed Chu’s numbers pretty close to those of his predecessor. And November’s polling has him improving by only a few points. The presidential election is Jan. 16.
A big part of KMT’s struggles is the appeal of Tsai. Taiwan’s answer to Elizabeth Warren, Tsai is a sophisticated, progressive former law professor with graduate degrees from Cornell University and the London School of Economics. In the 2012 election, she won 45.6 percent of the vote to Ma’s 51.6 percent — impressive for her first national campaign. In local elections a year ago, she led the party to unprecedented success. If elected, she will be the first female president of Taiwan.
When it comes to national identity, the DPP’s approach has historically differed from that of the KMT. The DPP has previously called for Taiwan to declare independence, which is perceived as a red line by mainland China. Tsai has also been skeptical of deepening trade ties with China.
Should Taiwan declare or even move toward independence, it could trigger preparations for a Chinese invasion. The U.S. would support Taiwan, and the idea of two great naval fleets clashing in the Taiwan Strait should be frightening far outside the region.
This brings us to the Xi-Ma meeting, and its political meaning. There’s no doubt that Xi would like to see the more cautious, pro-China KMT win the presidential election. Ma has sought such a meeting in the past, and if it were to give the KMT greater stature in the run-up to the elections, that could only be seen as a bonus from Xi’s perspective.
But Xi and the Chinese leadership are sophisticated enough to realize that the meeting alone is unlikely to turn the election to the KMT, and could even backfire if ordinary Taiwanese think that it didn’t produce any practical results. There was therefore more to China’s decision than a simple desire to prop up a friendly government in its hour of need.
Xi was also signaling to Taiwanese voters that he would be prepared to meet respectfully with a government that preserves the status quo with regard to independence. Xi referred to China and Taiwan as “one family,” and called the countries “brothers who are still connected by our flesh even if our bones are broken.” The ideal of unity resonates strongly for Xi’s domestic audience. And it’s also a message that Taiwan shouldn’t separate itself by moving toward a symbolic declaration of independence.
The message for Tsai and the DPP is clear: Don’t rock the boat. As China expands its regional military influence, its interest in keeping Taiwan close is greater than ever. Xi’s increasingly populist, nationalist rhetoric requires him to keep a close eye on Taiwan.
Thus, by appearing with Taiwan’s leader two months before Taiwan’s elections, Xi was sending a message of serious attention to Taiwanese affairs. In his mind, China and Taiwan are brothers, and there’s no doubt who’s the older, dominant member of the family.
Will Tsai listen? The DPP has already moderated its stance on independence as part of its presidential campaign. The party’s second in command, Joseph Wu, has said it wants to “maintain the status quo” of the “current democratic way of life.” In the delicate signaling game of Chinese-Taiwanese relations, this is a way of saying the DPP wants no movement closer to China, and might be prepared to drop its historic focus on stating its independence.
That’s probably a wise move. After all, Taiwan’s de facto independence from China depends on implicit U.S. support. But there’s no assurance that, if independence were declared and a military crisis followed, the U.S. would be there to protect Taiwan. Many Americans, particularly those outside the military establishment, would be loath to go to war against China to protect Taiwan.
The good news is that Xi doesn’t want military confrontation either. But behind the meeting with the KMT’s Ma is a message that the DPP shouldn’t be too aggressive. If Tsai wins the presidency, expect tensions between the countries to rise — with serious implications for the U.S. defense presence in Asia and the future of the cool war.
Noah Feldman, a Bloomberg View columnist, is a professor of constitutional and international law at Harvard University and the author of, most recently “Cool War: The Future of Global Competition.”
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