The weekend meeting between Chinese President Xi Jinping and President Ma Ying-jeou of Taiwan was a positive development for peace in the Taiwan Strait, despite the meeting’s mostly symbolic nature. No grand bargains or binding statements resulted, but the meeting highlights the importance of high-level discussions and constructive dialogue.
The question of Taiwan’s political status, as an independent country or renegade province, is of serious concern to the United States. A forceful military “reunification” of Taiwan with China could draw the United States into war. U.S. government officials should encourage steps that reduce the possibility of armed conflict such as the Xi-Ma meeting.
Figuring out a way to settle the Taiwan question peacefully has been complicated by the fact that the military balance across the Taiwan Strait has shifted firmly in China's favor. China’s military capabilities have also raised the cost that the United States would have to pay in a war over Taiwan.
These developments in the cross-strait military balance don’t mean that a Chinese attack is inevitable. But the changing balance creates a sense of urgency for keeping the cross-strait dispute from erupting into war. This will require a new military strategy in Taiwan. However, preventing war isn’t solely in the hands of the military; the political leaders on both sides need to recognize that “mutual compromise is the only effective way forward.”
The Xi-Ma meeting is by no means a silver bullet. Ma’s push for close economic ties with China has significantly damaged the popularity of his Kuomintang (KMT) party. The KMT will likely lose the 2016 presidential election to the more pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party, led by Tsai Ing-wen. Tsai was highly critical of Ma’s decision to meet with Xi. Many Taiwanese people were also opposed to the meeting, and want little to do with mainland China’s political system.
Despite the challenges, regular summits between the presidents of China and Taiwan should become a permanent fixture of cross-strait relations. War over Taiwan could inflict a great deal of damage to Taiwan, China, and the United States. High-level summits won’t eliminate the possibility of war, but they can provide a space for disagreements and crises to be resolved peacefully before they spiral into conflict.