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What's in a name? As it turns out, everything

The Mainland Affairs Council (MAC) said yesterday that a meeting between President Ma Ying-jeou and the leader of mainland China would fall under the category of “cross-strait” affairs as opposed to “international” or “domestic” affairs.

With Ma's presidency effectively ending in 2016, many have speculated that the incumbent head of government is aiming to leave a legacy. It is no secret that the administration is very proud of its achievements in improving cross-strait relations, and few could argue that there hasn't been a substantial decrease in tension between Taipei and Beijing.

If Ma were to leave a lasting legacy, it would be a meeting between himself and Chinese Communist Party General Secretary Xi Jinping (習近平). Although the meeting would be symbolic rather than substantive, “symbolism is a form substance,” just as The Economist argued with regard to the recent meeting between the minister of the MAC and his mainland Chinese counterpart.

How important are symbols and names? Consider the difference between “American Institute in Taiwan” and “Embassy of the United States in the Republic of China.” Or consider the difference between the “Republic of China” and the “Republic of Taiwan.” There are, needless to say, large differences, and in the case of the latter two, that difference would likely result in war.

The Taipei-based Straits Exchange Foundation and the Beijing-based Association for Relations Across the Straits were established precisely to circumvent this problem of names and symbols in the context of cross-strait relations.

Read any mainland China-based newspaper, and one will notice that the proper titles for politicians in Taiwan are always enclosed within quotation marks. The Wang-Zhang meet was significant precisely because officials, as opposed to representatives of quasi-governmental organizations, from both sides were able to meet in an official context and refer to each other by their formal titles, one of the very few occasions which elicited a positive response from the pan-green camp since the Kuomintang returned to power.

The rationale behind the proposal of a Ma-Xi meet at APEC, at least as far as Taiwan is concerned, is that representatives take part in the conference as economic leaders rather than heads of state. Despite saying that it would very much like to see a cross-strait leaders' meeting take place, Beijing is reluctant to see that happen at the APEC summit because it is an “international” event.

Not surprisingly, Taiwan Affairs Office Minister Zhang Zhijun (張志軍) said yesterday that since a cross-strait leaders' meeting falls under the category of cross-strait affairs, and since the meeting's discussion would center on cross-strait affairs, Beijing believes that it isn't necessary for such a meeting to take place at an international event.

Taipei, on the other hand, believes that since the APEC summit is an international event, there is a greater degree of flexibility given that this year's meeting will be held in Beijing. The rationale is that Beijing would be free to interpret the meeting between Ma and Xi as a “domestic affair,” whereas Taipei would be free to interpret it as taking place at an international event.

Despite its fixation with the “de-sinicization” in Taiwan, namely the effacement of Taiwan's cultural ties with China for the sake of establishing a separate Taiwanese identity, the pan-green camp has consistently championed the “rectification of names” (正名), which is, paradoxically, a Confucian doctrine.

The symbolism behind a hypothetical Ma-Xi meet under the principle of equality and mutual dignity serves at least two immediate purposes: It would help move cross-strait relations to an unprecedented phase, and it would let the public see that the leaders of the two sides of the strait can meet on equal terms, something which is supported by all in Taiwan despite their personal political orientation.

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