Desperate for Attention: Hung-Xi Meeting Lacks Meaning

On November 1, 2016, Hung Hsiu-chu, chairwoman of the Kuomintang (KMT), met with Xi Jinping, General Secretary of the Communist Party of China (CCP), at an annual forum between the KMT and CCP. This meeting received much fanfare in the media. The amount of attention that this photo op received may seem puzzling: Hung is not the president of Taiwan; she was such an unappealing presidential candidate that the KMT replaced her three months before the election; and the KMT does not hold the presidency or legislature making it the opposition party for the first time in Taiwan’s history. Hung kept floating the idea of promoting a “peace platform” even though she lacks any authority or mandate to negotiate or sign an agreement between Taiwan and China. In fact, it would be illegal. The Hung-Xi meeting only holds ceremonial importance, but even that characterization is a stretch. It has been incorrectly framed as another historic Ma-Xi meeting. That handshake represented years of negotiating, and having the sitting leaders of Taiwan and China finally meet marked a potential new chapter in cross-strait relations. That much hoped for chapter never materialized due to the KMT’s electoral collapse, and framing the Hung-Xi meeting in the same context does disservice to the historic nature of the meeting in Singapore last year.

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For Hung, it is a desperate headline grab that will further alienate the KMT from the populace, and for Xi, it is an attempt to embarrass President Tsai Ing-wen, who has called for a resumption of “talks” between Taiwan and China. While this event does occur annually between the leaders of the two parties, the timing and circumstances for a peace deal are not right: Taiwanese identity is at an all-time high, and the historic election in January 2016 shows that the public mood is against further integration with China. If Hung wanted to push the KMT further away from the public and continue to lose elections, then she made the correct move. Her views on unification do not align with the broad base of the public’s, and they are so pro-China that it is one of the reasons the KMT replaced her when she ran for president in 2015. Why does Hung think that she has any legal or political mandate to even think about such a deal?

The way in which Hung acted before and during the “Cross-Strait Peace Development Forum” rankled members of both the KMT and DPP. Before the scheduled meeting, the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) publicly warned Hung not to address “politically sensitive” topics with Xi. After the meeting, DPP officials said that she let the nation down through her actions. She did not challenge Xi’s statements on “one China,” so the term “Republic of China” (Taiwan’s official name) was omitted from the record again. DPP officials also expressed worry about Hung trying to move towards a similar definition of “one China” with the CCP. New Power Party (NPP) chairman Huang Kuo-chang (a new party that formed after the Sunflower Movement) expressed his discontent with this meeting by saying that KMT was “toeing the Communist line of united front while distancing itself farther and farther away from mainstream Taiwan.” Also, before this meeting, KMT officials emphasized “one China, different interpretations,” which is former President Ma Ying-jeou’s preferred formulation.  There are even reports that Hung argued with Ma over the 1992 Consensus and what “one China, different interpretations” means. If Ma—who advocated and maintained the status quo during his time in office—had to argue with her over the party’s interpretation of the 1992 Consensus, that shows how radical of a view she has.

As long as Hung controls the KMT, she could derail any chances that the party has of retaking major offices. The best hope for the party is that she gets ousted by a moderate member of the KMT so the party can work towards making meaningful policy changes that the public will accept. Hung and the KMT cannot hedge on a Tsai stumble or Chinese pressure to bring voters back into their ranks. This election solidifies a shift in Taiwanese political ideals, and the KMT must evolve to remain a viable party option. The party must move with the people, not vice versa. If ideologues like Hung continue to chair the party, create the platform, and pull stunts like the meeting with Xi, then the KMT is a lost cause.

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The Big Chill: Domestic Insecurities and Sino-Japanese Relations

China and Japan sparred once again, this time at the United Nations.  Last week, China’s ambassador for disarmament affairs charged Japan with amassing excessive amounts of sensitive nuclear materials, notably 1,200 kilograms of highly-enriched uranium and 48 tons of separated plutonium (of which about a quarter is stored on Japanese territory).  That is sufficient, he claimed, for Japan to make 1,350 nuclear warheads.  Japan’s disarmament envoy shot back that his country’s nuclear program has safely operated under the International Atomic Energy Agency’s safeguards for more than 50 years.  He added that over that time Japan has consistently demonstrated its peaceful intentions and would not pose a threat to other countries.[1]  Given that he directed his response at China’s ambassador, one may have also taken it as a reminder of China’s recent aggressive behavior in the East and South China Seas.

Shinzo Abe and Xi Jinping at APEC 2014

The pointed exchange marked another episode in the downward path of relations between China and Japan.  It was not so long ago both countries got along.  Throughout the 1990s and 2000s, they enjoyed ever closer economic ties.  Many blame the current deterioration in Sino-Japanese relations on the tensions that arose over Senkaku Islands (or Diaoyu Islands in China) in 2010 or Tokyo’s purchase of them from private Japanese owners in 2012.  Certainly trade between the two countries has fallen ever since then.  (See table.)  But the dispute over the islands was just the spark.  China and Japan have substantially changed over the last two decades, both in absolute and relative terms.  Both countries have developed domestic insecurities that led them to view each other with greater concern.

On the surface, China does not seem to have any cause for insecurity.  Its ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is ostensibly at the pinnacle of its power.  The government at which it is the head has presided over a 35-year economic expansion that has made China the envy of the developing world.  It is even doling out largesse under the auspices of its “One Belt, One Road” initiative and through the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) that will likely expand its influence across Asia and Africa.

Yet the CCP has reason to be anxious.  In its headlong push for economic growth, it often ignored public ire over government land grabs, pollution, and workers’ rights.  The party’s widespread corruption further dented its credibility.  Hence, despite the CCP’s best efforts to eliminate organized dissent, the number of public protests has recently risen.[2]  Meanwhile, China’s fast-rising economy, once the CCP’s shining achievement, is losing its luster amid sagging exports, bursting property bubbles, and rapidly mounting debts.  Seen in that light, China’s “One Belt, One Road” initiative and AIIB begin to look more like a worried search for growth abroad (and work for its infrastructure-building companies) than a coherent strategy to connect Eurasia’s economies.

Adding to the CCP’s unease is the ever-smaller number of true believers in its Marxist-Leninist ideology.  Chinese President Xi Jinping’s efforts to promote Marxism have fallen flat.  So, the CCP has returned to nationalism to bolster its popular appeal.  A big part of that has always been showcasing the CCP as China’s savior from Japanese occupation (while largely omitting the role of Taiwan’s Kuomintang).  The CCP seems to believe that its ceaseless criticism of Japan proves that it still faithfully stands watch against any revival of Japanese militarism that could threaten China.

Linked to that narrative, the CCP has tried to show how much stronger China has become under its rule.  That was made clear in September when China celebrated the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II (and China’s victory over Japan) with a massive military parade in Beijing.  The martial display conveyed the message to the Chinese people that they should be confident in the ability of the CCP to not only defend China, but also govern it.  On the other hand, that Beijing felt the need to use such demonstrations of strength to dispel doubts about its political legitimacy probably worried its neighbors.

Meanwhile, across the Yellow Sea, Japan has grown insecure too.  It can no longer rest easy as Asia’s dominant economic power, a title that it lost to China a decade ago.  It is increasingly aware of its national vulnerabilities.  Japan’s population is ageing fast and shrinking.  That demographic shift not only has implications for every aspect of Japanese society, but also will make economic growth harder to achieve.  That is doubly concerning for Japan, which is still struggling to break free from a quarter century of economic stagnation.

Japanese leaders are all too well aware that China’s rise is remaking the regional hierarchy in Asia.  They realize that Japan cannot afford to remain forever quiescent, if it is to avoid being consigned to a subordinate role in the new order.  That has compounded Japan’s sense of unease, because Japan knows that it must keep the power gap between China and Japan from growing wider, even though it now has fewer resources with which to do so.  Fortunately for Japan, other Asian countries have begun to feel the same way.  India, the Philippines, and Vietnam have all embraced Japan.

Tokyo has taken advantage of that sentiment and become far more diplomatically active across the region, if only to prevent China from consolidating its power there.  As Xi has pushed China’s “One Belt, One Road” initiative, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzō Abe has never been far away.  Abe has travelled to Southeast Asia numerous times to ink economic, political, and even a few military cooperation agreements.  Last week, Abe began a five-country tour through Central Asia, which lies at the heart of China’s “One Road.”  A week earlier, the Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force dispatched a destroyer to participate in naval drills with India and the United States in the Indian Ocean for the first time.

Meanwhile, there has been a generational change in Japan.  Older Japanese who had been willing to accept Japan’s diminished international stature as penance for its militarist past are passing from the scene.  Younger Japanese who have no connection with that past believe that their country has proven itself to be a responsible actor in world affairs.  Today, a majority of Japanese believe that Japan has sufficiently apologized for its military actions during the 1930s and 1940s, which China relishes reminding Japan of at every turn.  Unsurprisingly, recent polls showed that only 7 percent of Japanese viewed China favorably (down from 55 percent in 2002).  Even more telling, China’s very unfavorable rating in Japan climbed to 48 percent.[3]

The domestic insecurities of China and Japan are unlikely to abate soon.  China’s insecurities, bound up with those of the CCP, will grow if the Chinese economy continues to slow.  Japan’s insecurities are tied to its long-term demographic trends.  Both sets of insecurities continue to drive a wedge between the two countries.  Even the non-governmental Beijing-Tokyo Forum, whose primary purpose is to improve Sino-Japanese relations, has found it harder to reach a consensus.  The forum, which invites high-level former government officials from both countries, has always managed to eke out a joint statement, even during particularly testy times in Sino-Japanese relations like 2012.  This week it concluded without managing even that.  For the moment, relations between China and Japan are on ice.  The region should be grateful that the latest row between the two countries occurred inside the United Nations and not out in the East China Sea.

[1] “China Slams Japan’s Plutonium Stockpile, Frets About Nuke Armament,” Japan Bullet, October 21, 2015.

[2] See China Labor Bulletin.

[3] Pew Research Center, “Global Opposition to U.S. Surveillance and Drones, but Limited Harm to America’s Image,” July 2014; Pew Research Center, “America’s Global Image Remains More Positive than China’s,” July 2013.

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