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Summit With Chinese Leader Spotlights Unmet Expectations in Taiwan

  • Ralph Jennings

Chinese President Xi Jinping and Taiwan's President Ma Ying-jeou, left, wave to the media during a summit in Singapore, Nov. 7, 2015.

Chinese President Xi Jinping and Taiwan's President Ma Ying-jeou, left, wave to the media during a summit in Singapore, Nov. 7, 2015.

Presidents from Taiwan and China moved to cement goodwill at a first-ever meeting Saturday. But little applause emanated from Taiwan, which is China’s political and military rival of nearly seven decades. Taiwanese say seven years of closer ties have brought few tangible benefits, such as economic growth or a homeland safe from war.

China has claimed sovereignty over a reluctant, self-ruled Taiwan since the 1940s. Icy relations began to improve in 2008, as the two sides worked out a series of agreements bridging the two economies. Today in Taiwan, where the economy shrank in the third quarter of this year, people wonder where the benefits are.

Liu Yi-jiun, a public affairs professor at Fo Guang University in Taiwan, said Taiwanese wanted progress Saturday when the two presidents met for the first time, after two years of planning.

“We had a high expectation, because in the past 66 years, these two highest leaders never met. Politically, economically, concession was promised coming out of the meeting. But until the last minute, the last second, we just don’t see anything coming out,” said Liu.

Taiwan's President Ma told his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping he was worried about China’s missiles and that people at home were frustrated that China was blocking Taiwan’s foreign relations. Beijing is recognized by 170 states, compared to Taiwan’s 22, a gap that lets China keep Taiwan from developing its diplomacy.

Although China allowed Taiwan to sign free-trade agreements with Singapore and New Zealand, both of which recognize Beijing, it has not opened doors for Taiwan to join the United Nations or other international organizations. China’s president said Saturday his missiles were not aimed at Taiwan.

Taiwanese officials say deals with China to date have created 9,600 jobs among a population of 23 million. Agreements that opened tourism brought a total 2.8 million mainland Chinese to the island last year, up from virtually none in 2007. Trade deals have helped raise total imports and exports to $130 billion last year. China is Taiwan’s largest trading partner and top investment destination.

Protesters rally against the meeting of Taiwan President Ma Ying-jeou and China counterpart Xi Jinping in Singapore outside of the Songshan Airport in Taipei, Taiwan, Nov. 7, 2015.

Protesters rally against the meeting of Taiwan President Ma Ying-jeou and China counterpart Xi Jinping in Singapore outside of the Songshan Airport in Taipei, Taiwan, Nov. 7, 2015.

Common people complain the benefits of those 23 deals are reaching mainly the owners of big companies.

In the island’s capital markets, investment from China amounts to only a fraction of the island government’s quota. Tseng Ming-chung, chairman of the Financial Supervisory Commission, said in an interview Friday that the government has approved almost every such application.

He said the amount of money is extremely low. He adds that the Taiwanese government is not refusing would-be investors. Tseng said the truth lies on the other side and that mainland Chinese institutions cannot so freely set up qualified domestic institutional investors.

China insists on eventual unification with Taiwan despite opinion polls showing most Taiwanese oppose that goal. Taiwanese said at weekend demonstrations they want China to commit to dropping weapons.

Nathan Liu, an international affairs and diplomacy professor at Ming Chuan University in Taiwan, said others expect an understanding on how China and Taiwan will regard each other long term.

“For the most, they think that at least by the end of Ma’s term the two sides should at least reach some kind of agreement. When I say agreement, I don’t really mean that signed agreement, but understanding that they are going toward a common goal. This is not complete yet,” he said.

Ma must step down next year because of term limits. A backlash against economic deals with China sparked mass street protests in March 2014 and has given the island’s chief opposition party candidate a lead in opinion polls ahead of the January presidential election. Analysts say the Saturday leadership summit achieved too little to change voter sentiment.

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