Much ink has been spilled on the meeting earlier this month between Taiwan’s president, Ma Ying-jeou, and the leader of China, Xi Jinping. The fact that the two got together for a handshake and a grin is no doubt a big deal. But, at least in terms of marking a major milestone along the road to better relations, nothing happened to warrant all this attention. For the most part, despite the pageantry, the meeting changed little. On the other hand, because the gulf between China and Taiwan is as wide as ever, that should have everyone, but especially Chinese policymakers, taking notice.
Ma and Xi met in Singapore on Nov. 7 for talks over dinner. Even before it was held, the meeting was labeled “historic” because it was the first time leaders of China and Taiwan had ever met each other. And because Taiwan is considered something of a flashpoint for nuclear war, the world’s collective interest inevitably piques at any hint of diplomacy between them, since, as Winston Churchill put it, meeting jaw to jaw is better than war.
But neither side made compromises that would signal a substantive shift in the relationship. Xi was willing to budge on two main points only. The first was to deign to treat Ma as a nominal equal, with both sides addressing the other as xiansheng, or “mister.” Xi could have insisted that Ma accept a subordinate rank as the leader of a mere “province,” as China sees Taiwan. In the Chinese context, this was not an insignificant concession. After all, only one of them can hold the mandate to rule tianxia, or “all under heaven”—that is, China. But most Taiwanese met this dispensation with a collective shrug. To their minds, it is blindingly obvious that Ma is the president of a country and Xi the leader of another.