Saturday’s summit between Chinese president Xi Jinping and the president of Taiwan, Ma Ying-jeou was obviously important. After all, it’s the first-ever meeting between the two countries’ leaders after decades of on-again, off-again military tension. Yet it’s hard to pick out what specifically the summit actually changed.
There’s one exception, though—and we have Marco Rubio, the US senator and presidential candidate, to thank for pointing it out.
“[W]e should take the occasion of this meeting between the leaders of China and Taiwan to enhance dialogue and strengthen our own ties with Taipei,” said Rubio in a press statement. “We too must engage with Taiwan at higher levels to ensure peace and stability across the Strait.”
The background to the Florida senator’s remarks has to do with the thorny drama behind the “One China policy.” The Nationalist Party (a.k.a. Kuomintang, or KMT) to which Ma belongs ruled mainland China until 1949, when its leaders lost the civil war to China’s Communist Party (CCP) and fled to Taiwan. Since then, both the CCP and KMT—now democratically elected—have claimed sovereignty over both mainland China and Taiwan, even though they clearly don’t exercise it. After the US normalized relations with Beijing in the 1970s, Taiwan has become a pseudo-state frozen out of international agreements. China requires that any country wishing to establish diplomatic relations recognize the One China policy. Even the US, Taiwan’s closest ally, maintains only unofficial diplomatic relations with the democratic island.
Taiwan’s diplomatic non-existence has wounded it economically. Without the status to enhance trade ties with other countries, Taiwan has grown steadily more dependent on China’s economy. And that’s very likely China’s master plan: starve the beast into joining the herd.
The Xi-Ma summit hinted that this dynamic could change. Xi agreed to the meeting as the “leader of China” talking with the “leader of Taiwan.” This represents Xi’s recognition of Taiwan as an “equal partner,” as Rubio notes, and potentially allows the US to meet directly with Taiwan as well. He also says the US ”should be pushing for Taiwan’s eventual inclusion in additional international organizations and trade agreements”—something many hoped Xi might soften on during his meeting with Ma, but that didn’t come to pass.
The “leader”-to-“leader” precedent is important for another reason: It implies that Xi should be willing to meet with any future leader of Taiwan too. With elections right around the corner, there’s every likelihood the next leader won’t be from Ma’s China-friendly KMT. The long-embittered Taiwanese voters will almost certainly put Tsai Ing-wen, from the warier-of-China Democratic Progressive Party, in office—a possibility the Eurasia Group’s Ian Bremmer identified as a major geopolitical security risk. Rubio’s position that Xi should keep up the “new norm in cross-Straits relations, regardless of who is in power in Taipei,” is sensible policy.
Strikingly, the other major US presidential candidates, Democrat and Republican, have kept mum on the issue. To be clear, increased support for Taiwan is something of a Rubio hobbyhorse. But that doesn’t make his argument that the US should follow Xi’s lead any less compelling. And, by comparison, it doesn’t make his competitors’ views on dealing with China any less unsettling: