A 70-second handshake: China & Taiwan making up for lost time?

There is always a risk of overplaying the importance of symbolic meetings between world leaders, but the 70-second handshake between President Xi Jinping of the People’s Republic of China and President Ma Ying-jeou of the Republic of China (commonly known as Taiwan) is truly a momentous occasion. The first meeting between leaders of the “two Chinas” since the civil war of the 1940s that led to Taiwan’s de facto separation from the mainland.

The meeting, which took place in Singapore, has not been formally explained by either side and it will not lead to the kind of dramatic shift in relations that many would hope for – either towards ‘reunification’ or for a greater recognition by China of Taiwan’s right to autonomy, let alone formal independence. Nor does it seem that any significant or meaningful agreements have been reached over some of the more practical matters that help to keep the relationship peaceful, such as trade and tourism.

Chinese President Xi Jinping and Taiwan President Ma Ying-jeou wave to journalists during a meeting at Shangrila hotel in Singapore on November 7, 2015. The leaders of China and Taiwan hold a historic summit that will put a once unthinkable presidential seal on warming ties between the former Cold War rivals. AFP PHOTO / MOHD RASFANSo what was the point? As ever, domestic political considerations are central to understanding the motivations of both parties. Ma Ying-jeou has built his reputation in Taiwan as a president that could help to improve the state of the relationship with the mainland. While this is not a popular tactic with all Taiwanese, the majority of the island’s population favour a cordial relationship at minimum with the PRC. Certainly, finding a way to continue Taiwan’s de facto independence whilst staving off any threat of invasion from its giant neighbour ought to be considered a success for any leader of the island. But there is a presidential election looming in Taiwan and, having served two terms, Ma is not eligible to stand again. The KMT’s candidate, Chu Li-luan (also known as Eric Chu), has recently been brought in to replace Hung Hsiu-chu who was trailing hopelessly in the polls and Ma’s meeting with Xi is a reminder to the large portion of the electorate who value cordial relations with the mainland that the KMT is the only party that can really deliver this.

Xi’s motivations may be somewhat similar. Any move towards a formal declaration of independence – unthinkable under the KMT but a marginally more realistic prospect under the opposition DPP – would leave him hamstrung in terms of policy options. China is committed to regaining sovereignty over Taiwan and such a move would leave Xi with little option but to take military action, something that he would clearly prefer not to do. So it is in the interests of the CCP that the KMT remains in power in Taiwan.

So it could be interpreted that this is an attempt by the CCP to influence the Taiwanese electorate. If it is, then it represents a considerable change in tactics from the last time it attempted to do this, when a series of missile tests were conducted in the Taiwan Straits in an attempt to convince the Taiwanese electorate not to vote for Lee Teng-hui, who it considered to be an advocate of Taiwanese independence. The result was almost catastrophic for China as the US came to Taiwan’s assistance. A military conflict was narrowly avoided but China lost both face and international credibility. It also singularly failed in its objective as Lee was elected by a landslide. It remains to be seen if Xi’s softer approach will be more effective in achieving Chinese goals.

China’s Military Parade

a41f726b0511165f43380bOn September 3rd the largest military parade ever held in the People’s Republic of China dominated the streets of Beijing and also the TV screens of the nation. Ostensibly the parade was to mark the 70th anniversary of China’s victory in what it calls the “War of Chinese People’s Resistance against Japanese Aggression”, and what is commonly known in the West as the Second Sino-Japanese War.

The parade itself gave the world a glimpse of some Chinese military hardware that had never before been seen, and an overall impression of a militarily strong country ready and prepared to defend itself should the need arise (not that anyone sensible is suggesting China is under imminent threat of attack from the Japanese, or anyone else for that matter). President Xi Jinping was at the centre of proceedings, greeting the massed troops by declaring “Comrades, you have worked hard”. His speech was littered with references to Japanese aggression and made much of the CCP’s role in defeating global fascism in World War II, a narrative that has become more deeply emphasised in recent years but which is, at best, an exaggeration of the party’s position in China at the time. The speech was also notable for an announcement that the PLA would be reducing its troop numbers by 300,000, something which came as a surprise to many analysts and also, presumably, to some of those in the parade who are now facing redundancy.

The parade was significant for China watchers to see who turned up and who didn’t. Despite some earlier rumours that Japanese Prime Minister Abe had held preliminary discussions about attending the parade, the overt anti-Japanese nature of the event meant that he had far too much to lose domestically by showing his face. In the end, Japan sent no representation and even lodged a complaint with the UN about Ban Ki-Moon’s own decision to appear.

Russia’s President Vladimir Putin was, unsurprisingly, given a great deal of prominence, particularly as Russia was one of 17 foreign countries to participate in the parade itself (others included Pakistan, Mexico and Egypt). South Korea’s President Park Geun-Hye was the most prominent leader from Asia and her presence underscored the recent closeness of China-South Korea relations, defined as much by their mutual dislike of Japan as anything else. North Korea’s leader Kim Jong-Un did not appear (it would have been unprecedented if he had) but the country did send Choe Ryong-Hae, a senior official who has previously conducted international diplomacy on behalf of Kim. In all, there were 20 heads of state present, with a smattering of other top leaders from around the world. Notably absent, in addition to Japan, were any significant delegations from the US, the UK (although former Prime Minister Tony Blair was spotted), Western Europe, Australia or the Middle East.

The attendees confirmed two things. Firstly, the US and its allies continue to resist China’s attempts to position itself as a global leader with legitimacy stemming from both its own power and its demonstrable restraint in exercising it (the parade ended with a symbolic release of doves over Tiananmen Square). Secondly, it proved that China is not as isolated in Asia as is frequently presented, particularly in Japan. That the only significant power in the region not to send a major delegation was Japan itself suggests that it is at risk of becoming the isolated one. The CCP’s version of its place in history is certainly questionable, but its position in today’s global order is far less disputable.

China’s reaction to the Abe Statement – a sign of things to come?

Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe

Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe

Anniversaries matter in the context of East Asian international relations and the historical difficulties that the major powers of the region are till yet to overcome. In particular, China’s relationship with Japan is marked by a number of important dates that all bring with them the possibility of either steps toward reconciliation or further antagonism. With 2015 marking the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II – and therefore of the end of the Second Sino-Japanese War and Japan’s brutal, bloody occupation of much of China – all eyes were on Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on August 14th as he made a speech to mark the date that Japan announced it would be surrendering to the Allies in 1945 (which was actually the following day).

Abe’s speech would always be measured against the ‘gold standard’ of Japanese apologies, that made by former Prime Minister Murayama on the 50th anniversary in 1995. Murayama’s expressions of “deep remorse” and “heartfelt apology” were echoed ten years later by Junichiro Koizumi despite his own apparent provocations of China over the history issue. Abe’s statement – the result of months of internal wrangling and negotiation between factions of his own Liberal Democratic Party as well as coalition partners New Komeito – was impressively nuanced. He succeeded in ticking enough boxes to appear to reiterate Japan’s apologies without actually re-articulating them directly, providing Abe with space to appease elements of both his domestic and international audiences.

Abe’s declaration that “Japan has repeatedly expressed the feelings of deep remorse and heartfelt apology for its actions during the war” was aimed at referencing the all-important Murayama statement whilst allowing the right-wing domestic audience not to view it as another apology. This was further reinforced with the statement that Japan “must not let our children, grandchildren, and even further generations to come, who have nothing to do with that war, be predestined to apologize.”

Prior to the statement’s release, China seemed in the mood not so much for compromise but at least for avoiding further provocation. This was never going to be a watershed moment in Sino-Japanese reconciliation, but it did offer room for the Chinese leadership to accept Abe’s words as maintaining the previously understood position over history. Despite the increased tensions between the two countries in recent years, particularly over the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu islands, there were signs that China’s leadership had been seeking something of a thaw.

The response from China was critical in tone. Hua Chunying, a spokesperson from the Foreign Ministry, stated that “Japan should have made an explicit statement on the nature of the war of militarism and aggression and its responsibility on the wars, made sincere apology to the people of victim countries, and made a clean break with the past of militarist aggression, rather than being evasive on this major issue of principle”.

The suggestion that Japan has not gone far enough should come as no surprise. Abe’s statement was no Willy Brandt or Richard Nixon moment. Nevertheless, it was striking that China’s criticism did not go further. China’s opinion of Abe is not high. His visit to Yasukuni Shrine in December 2013 along with his generally hawkish stance on historical matters have prevented him from seeking anything resembling a positive relationship with Xi Jinping. The two did not meet for the first two years of Abe’s premiership and when they finally did, the handshake was so awkward that it sparked comic comparisons to Winnie the Pooh. Against this backdrop, and with the ambiguity of Abe’s statement, the opportunity for China to respond with wholehearted condemnation was certainly open. That it did not take this chance may be a positive sign for the short-term future of Sino-Japanese relations.

China certainly has plenty on its plate domestically at the moment. The catastrophic chemical plant explosion in Tianjin has grabbed plenty of headlines, though it is likely that the blame for this will be placed on local officials rather than fingers being pointed at the central government. The biggest concern for the CCP right now is the stock market, which continues to plunge, wiping out small investors’ savings and confidence alike. It’s possible that China simply doesn’t want to pick a fight with one its most important economic partners at this time.

All will become clearer at the next important anniversary, on September 3rd when China marks the formal end of World War II (Japan’s formal surrender occurred on September 2nd, making the following day the first that China was no longer occupied). Beijing will host a huge military parade to mark the occasion this year with guests to include Vladimir Putin. The litmus test will be if Abe accepts his own invitation – and rumours in Tokyo suggest that he will – providing him with an opportunity for a much more visibly symbolic gesture to appease his Chinese hosts.