China’s ruling Communist Party doesn’t like to throw up too many surprises — so it drew plenty of gasps from even veteran Beijing-watchers when news leaked that its chief, Xi Jinping, would meet Taiwan’s President Ma Ying-jeou in Singapore tomorrow.

This break by Beijing from decades of diplomatic practice — and the timing, only 10 weeks before the Tawainese presidential elections, which Ma’s pro-mainland party looks set to lose — appears like a flagrant attempt at political manipulation by both sides.

Yet this could, in its own way, help open the door for Australia to better normalise its relations with one of the handful of functioning democracies in the Asia Pacific (there are surprisingly few).

The leaders of the “two Chinas” have never met in the 66 years since the CCP beat the Chinese Nationalist Party, aka Kuomintang (KMT), which ruled China from 1941-1949, in the civil war that followed the defeat of occupying Japan. Heavily defeated in the last round of local Taiwanese elections, KMT appears headed for another decisive defeat in January’s presidential elections, which Democratic Progressive Party candidate Tsai Ing-wen is expected to win on her second attempt.

Beijing considers Taiwan to be an errant province that will, at some stage, come back into the fold.

Ma’s heavy-handed efforts to draw the country closer to the mainland could, ironically, have cruelled any unification efforts forever, with young Taiwanese clearly in favour of the island retaining its independence.

Ma has wanted this meeting for some years; diplomatic sources have noted he tried to organise it on the sidelines of an Asia Pacific Economic Co-operation (APEC) summit a few years back, but the mainland turned him down. It has always been the mainland — which continues to build up a formidable arsenal aimed at its neighbour — that has held the cards in terms of meetings.

The meeting is set against the backdrop of growing displeasure with China’s outrageous efforts to build new islands and claim territory in the South China Sea. The decision by the United States to sail inside the 12-nautical-mile limit — which marks a country’s sovereign territory — of one of these artificial islands was reached during the annual AUSMIN summit of Australian and US foreign and defence ministers that came shortly after Xi’s trip to Washington. Australia has backed the US moves and indeed, the Australian navy has been reported to have been laying contingency plans to follow up with its own ships. The reports were denied.

Still, this is all part of what appears to be a considered move by Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull to carve out a clearer and more independent China policy that has been missing in Australia since attempts to do that by the first Rudd administration faltered. In the ensuing years, the Australian prime ministership has been held mainly (it’s hard to count the second Rudd government) by foreign policy neophytes Julia Gillard and Tony Abbott, although it was Gillard who allowed Barack Obama to station marines near Darwin for the first time, a move backed by the Coalition.

Senior diplomats will tell you that China clearly understands that Australia is an ally of the US. China might not like it and might try and sway weaker and less experienced leaders, but it does not have any delusions.

Ever since his damp squib of a trip to the United States in September (his first official state visit), Xi has been on a regional charm offensive designed to counter the US’ decision to finally step up its protests against China’s aggressive behaviour.

The first step was the trilateral summit with Japan and South Korea in Seoul between three countries that have regarded each other for centuries with suspicion and distrust, amplified last century by Japan’s colonial occupation of its neighbours and the Korean War. For once, all sides declared that they were pleased with the outcome.

Taiwan is one of Australia’s top 10 export markets and a top 10 investor, yet we have treated the country — whose population of 24 million is very similar to our own — increasingly shabbily.

According to Monash University’s Joel Atkinson, Australia sent a government minister to Taiwan every year between 1992 and 1997.

“Extraordinary pressure from China following the Howard government’s support for the US during the 1995-96 Taiwan Strait Crisis saw this dwindle to two ministerial visits over 10 years,” he wrote, following the release of Gillard’s Asian Century farrago. During the Rudd-Gillard-Rudd years, only Craig Emerson, as trade minister, went on an unofficial visit. Talk about kowtowing.

If he is canny, Turnbull can turn the current attention on Taiwan, focus that will only mount as the country nears its election, to his advantage.

His new foreign affairs adviser, retiring China ambassador Frances Adamson, should be well tuned into Tapei; Australia’s mission there falls under the Beijing envoy’s aegis. Her advice on the matter would be fascinating to hear.

Once Taiwan’s election is complete, Julie Bishop should visit. With a renewed, open and public friendship with  Taiwan (rather than the secretive nonsense that goes on these days), Turnbull can finish drawing the distinction between Australia trade relationship and its strategic policy and end the years of embarrassing acquiescence to Beijing.

Peter Fray

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