Written by Michael Reilly.

Not surprisingly, the general international reaction to the announcement that Xi Jinping and Ma Ying-jeou will meet in Singapore this weekend for the first ever direct talks between the heads of state of China and Taiwan was welcoming. It is indeed a historic step forward for the two protagonists, relations between whom are still seen by many Western analysts as dangerous and unpredictable.

But from another angle it is less an act of statesmanship and more the latest example of blatant Chinese intervention in Taiwanese elections. Twenty years ago China’s reaction to the first direct head of state elections in Taiwan was to fire warning missiles into the Taiwan Strait. Even in 2008, while no longer firing missiles, China was still strenuously, albeit privately, warning the US and EU member states of dangerous and unpredictable consequences should the DPP win the election. China has never made any attempt to hide its strong preference for the KMT and its dislike and mistrust of the DPP. As the 16 January elections draw nearer, the KMT’s candidate is lagging badly in the polls, the party itself is split and badly needs to pull a rabbit out of a hat if it is to turn the polls around. Step forward President Xi Jinping. What better way to galvanise support for the KMT than a meeting with Ma Ying Jeou?

For both the KMT and CCP, downside risks from the meeting are few. Xi will get international kudos just for having held the meeting, which his party propaganda machine will use domestically to good effect. In Taiwan, if the talks go well, Ma Ying Jeou will have a legacy from his presidency and the KMT will reinforce its argument that only it can deliver cross-Strait stability. If they go badly, Ma is already a lame duck president and deeply unpopular so expect him to shoulder the blame for the initiative.

The Xi-Ma meeting represents a challenge for the DPP and its presidential candidate Tsai Ing Wen. On one hand, Tsai should feel flattered that China is so worried by her popularity as to hold the talks in the first place. On the other, there is no doubt that China’s intention is to put pressure on her and to make her look unreliable, both to Taiwanese voters and internationally. China has already insisted that Tsai must publicly commit to the ‘1992 Consensus’ agreed between the KMT and CCP as the basis for relations. Pressure in this direction will only grow as election day draws nearer. China’s aim remains clear whoever is Taiwan’s president: a clear commitment to enter negotiations on closer political relations. Anything less will be considered unsatisfactory.

Given the configuration of public opinion,  no Taiwanese leader is in a position to make such a commitment, indeed doing so would be tantamount to political suicide. While Ma Ying-jeou has been generally credited with a significant improvement in relations with China, he has always been careful to rule out discussions on political relations. This limitation means that in practice the cross-straits policies of both the KMT and DPP in recent years have been far more similar than the rhetoric might suggest and are likely to remain so, constrained as they are by foreign pressure and domestic expectations.

The former bears harder on the DPP. Tsai has not forgotten her visit to Washington in 2011 ahead of the last presidential campaign, when an anonymous White House source publicly doubted her willingness and ability to maintain stable cross-Strait relations if elected. Her last visit in July this year, when she sought to reassure the US administration that she would maintain the status quo if elected, was much more successful. For the KMT, domestic concerns limit the room for manoeuvre. Although not specifically anti-KMT, last year’s ‘Sunflower’ protests against closer economic relations with China, driven by fears that it would mean job losses and wage stagnation, were a clear signal of growing domestic unease over the failure of Ma’s ‘Westpolitik’ to deliver the promised economic benefits.

What is frequently overlooked is that Ma’s first supposed breakthrough in relations, an agreement on direct flights, had already been negotiated by the previous DPP administration, notwithstanding China’s visceral dislike of Chen Shui-bian. And on taking office Ma was anxious to reassure voters about the direction of his cross-Strait relations by appointing a senior opposition politician, Lai Shin-yuan, as his first Chair of the Mainland Affairs Council.

Against this background, surely the correct strategic response of Tsai Ing Wen should be to make a public commitment to the current status quo and Ma Ying Jeou’s ‘Three Noes’: no unification, no declaration of independence and no use of force. Doing so would disconcert both China and the KMT by undermining their claims. More importantly, it might allow a full and proper policy debate on the real challenges faced by Taiwan, rather than seeing the campaign hijacked by the China issue. In almost any other polity, domestic concerns would be uppermost in an election campaign. Taiwan has no shortage of them either: real wages have been stagnant for over a decade, a lack of domestic opportunities sees many of the country’s best and brightest talent moving overseas, dealing with an ageing population and falling birth rate raise social welfare issues, the judicial system is in dire need of overhaul and reform and there are growing concerns about the country’s ability to defend itself. The risk for the Taiwanese electorate is that in the obsession with China, these and other issues will be overlooked.

In welcoming the talks, US and EU leaders would do well to reaffirm their support for Taiwan’s democratic processes and avoid appearing to take sides in the election campaign. And EU leaders would also do well to look carefully at the host country, Singapore, and its relations with the two. A major investor in and trader with China, its Prime Ministers visit regularly and enjoy warm relations with the CCP’s leaders. But this has not been at the expense of relations with Taiwan, with whom Singapore was one of the very first countries to start negotiations on a free-trade agreement, and where it still trains its army and bases much of its air force. A clear reminder, if one was needed, that China values consistency, firmness and transparency in its relations far more than obsequiousness. George Osborne please take note.

Michael Reilly is a non-resident Senior Fellow at the CPI, a former Director of the British Trade and Cultural office in Taipei and until recently the chief representative in China of a major international aerospace company. Image credit:CC by d!zzy/Flickr.