President Xi Jinping of the People’s Republic China and President Ma Ying-jeou of the Republic of China in Taiwan conducted a historic meeting in Singapore on November 7, 2015. The meeting is symbolic in nature because neither a joint statement nor an agreement has been signed by the leaders across the Strait. However, the implications of the meeting for regional security are profound.

First, the meeting opened a new phase of bilateral relations between the mainland and Taiwan. Despite increasing economic and cultural linkages between the mainland and Taiwan, political talks or negotiations have been a political taboo for many years. Although the Xi-Ma meeting will have limited effects on the upcoming elections in Taiwan in early 2016, it signified a new stage of bilateral relations across the Taiwan Strait. Based on recent polls, it is highly likely that the DPP (Democratic Progressive Party), the opposition party in Taiwan, will win the presidential election. However, no matter who comes to power, the Xi-Ma meeting has set a new “status quo” that will constrain the new Taiwanese leader’s policy behavior toward the mainland because any pro-independent rhetoric or policy will be seen as a setback from the “status quo.”

After Ma announced his meeting, Tsai Ying-wen, the DPP presidential candidate, also stated that she would not exclude the possibility to meet Xi Jinping if she is elected in February, 2016. It seems that the Xi-Ma meeting has signified a new starting point for the relations across the Strait. Although the future of Taiwan issue is still full of uncertainties, one thing is clear: a bilateral summit, if it can be institutionalized, will be conducive to maintaining stability and peace across the Strait.

Second, the Xi-Ma meeting might encourage pragmatic cooperation between the mainland and Taiwan on the territorial disputes in the South China Sea and the East China Sea. Regarding the Diaoyu/Senkaku islands and the South China Sea, the mainland and Taiwan hold the same sovereign claims based on historical records. For example, in late October, 2015 the Hague-based Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) ruled that it had jurisdiction over the case filed by the Philippines, which contested China’s claims to nearly 90 percent of the South China Sea. Both the mainland and Taiwan issued official statements insisting that they would not recognize the ruling by the PCA, because China has “indisputable sovereignty over the South China Sea Islands and the adjacent waters.” Xi and Ma might not have discussed the South China Sea and the East China Sea issues at their closed-door meeting in Singapore. However, the meeting itself may pave the path for pragmatic cooperation or coordination between relevant bureaucracies of the two sides. 

Last but not least, the Xi-Ma meeting might influence the dynamics of US-China competition in the long run. Taiwan is a de facto ally of the United States. Although the United States recognizes the “One China” principle, it has still provided advanced weapons to Taiwan for defending itself against the mainland. The United States just conducted a freedom of navigation (FON) patrol in the waters near the Subi and Mischief reefs controlled by the mainland China, and the US action is widely seen as a direct challenge to China’s ambitions in the South China Sea. If the strategic competition between China and the United States in the South China Sea is inevitable in the future, Taiwan’s position might be a key factor in shaping the final outcome. Due to the similar historical claims over the South China Sea, cooperation or coordination between the mainland and Taiwan might influence the power balance between China and other parties. Although the US unparalleled naval power is less likely to be challenged, practical assistances or even a neutral stand by Taiwan will be a strategic asset for China in the territorial disputes in the South and East China Seas.

Written by Griffith Asia Institute Associate Professor Kai He.