Max Hirsch of Kyodo reported a couple of days ago that Lee Teng-hui nixed a secret meeting in the Strait aboard a ship with President Jiang of China:

Former Taiwanese president Lee Teng-hui admitted in a recent exclusive with Kyodo News that he had nixed a covert meeting with then Chinese President Jiang Zemin in the 1990s after Jiang, according to a Taiwanese shipping tycoon, had already signaled a willingness to attend the tete-a-tete.

“I was asked to attend the meeting, but I refused — that’s true,” Lee told Kyodo, saying that he had rejected the summit for fear of hindering democratization at home by “joining hands” with the island’s authoritarian rival.

The admission marks the first time Lee, 85, has gone on record about the planned meeting, billed by analysts as a would-be watershed in China-Taiwan relations.

A Beijing-Taipei summit has never emerged amid more than a half-century of enmity that could trigger war, even as businesses ties across the Taiwan Strait flourish.

…..

Hosted by Taiwan’s influential Evergreen Group, the secret summit — designed to ease tensions — was to transpire on the group’s freighter straddling the Taiwan Strait’s median line, which divides the maritime zones of Taiwan and China, Evergreen Group Chairman Chang Yung-fa told Kyodo in a January exclusive.

Evergreen is a Taipei-based shipping and transportation conglomerate founded by Chang, 80, who masterminded and pitched the meeting to Beijing and Taipei.

China and Taiwan regularly propose peace talks with each other, but Beijing’s insistence that Taipei first recognize its “One China” principle before meeting have marred all efforts to hold open talks.

The canceled clandestine summit marks the first reported case of a Chinese president agreeing to meet his Taiwanese counterpart unconditionally.

Adding to the drama of the expected talks were simultaneous helicopter trips — one for Lee from Taiwan; the other for Jiang from China, Chang said. Each man was to arrive at the ship at the same time to symbolize ‘”an equality of sovereignty.”

In December, Hong Kong newsweekly Yazhou Zhoukan quoted Tang Shubei, former vice chairman of China’s Association for Relations Across the Taiwan Strait, as confirming the momentous meeting that almost was — the first such admission from a Chinese official.

A quasi-governmental agency, ARATS facilitates cross-strait dialogue for Beijing.

“Jiang couldn’t go to Taiwan, Lee wasn’t willing to go to China, and Hong Kong was ruled by the British,” Tang said. “So, meeting on a ship in the strait became a possibility.”

Chang said he lobbied Beijing “for three months” until Jiang expressed a willingness to attend the meeting “sometime between 1993 and 1996,” before China’s military began lobbing unarmed missiles near Taiwan that year.

Jiang, he said, dispatched Wang Zhaoguo, who directed China’s Taiwan Affairs Office from 1990 to 1996, to Zhuhai, Guangdong Province, to meet with Chang and signal Jiang’s willingness to attend.

A longtime friend of Lee, Chang also persuaded the Taiwanese president to approve the proposal, and for a time, the meeting appeared on the verge of happening, he said. At the last minute, however, Lee sent word through a staffer that he was pulling out, Chang added.

“If…while furthering Taiwan’s democratization, I had been seen as taking cues from Jiang Zemin, many problems would have arisen,” Lee said, while explaining his rejection of the summit.

“(Chang) is a businessman. Businessmen only think about their own interests,” Lee said. “I couldn’t have an outsider leading the nation.”

For a Taiwan rapt in democratization throughout the 1990s, a summit with communist China could have sparked a backlash for Lee if news of the meeting had leaked.

Jeopardizing the island’s nascent democracy movement by fueling a perception of bowing to Beijing — and so soon after “Tiananmen Square” — was not a risk Lee was willing to take.

In 1989, a mass demonstration of pro-democracy protesters in Beijing turned bloody after People’s Liberation Army troops killed hundreds, if not thousands, of protesters in or near Tiananmen Square, squashing the rally.

Succeeding the late Chiang Ching-kuo as president in 1988, Lee is typically credited with fostering Taiwan’s then delicate shift to democracy, while Beijing has resisted political reformation despite its economic liberalization.

Chang, however, told a different story: Lee, he alleged, sought all credit for the landmark rendezvous, brushing aside Chang and going through a “Hong Kong connection” to re-schedule the summit and seal his legacy.

Indeed, in 1992, Taipei under Lee set a benchmark in cross-strait exchanges after Koo Chen-fu of the Straits Exchange Foundation, ARATS’ counterpart on Taiwan, met with Wang Daohan, then ARATS chairman, in Hong Kong.

So promising were the talks that Koo and Wang Daohan met again in 1993 under more formal circumstances in Singapore.

In 1996, however, cross-strait relations nosedived after China fired missiles near Taiwan in exercises meant to curtail the island’s growing independence movement.

Undeterred, Taiwanese voters that year elected Lee to stay on as president in the island’s first direct presidential election.

Ever since, the government in Taipei — be it under Lee or the Democratic Progressive Party — has struck a stridently pro-independence tone, while cross-strait exchanges fumble on behind closed doors.

“Such is Taiwan’s fate,” lamented Chang, while reminiscing last month over the canceled summit and cross-strait ties.

Business opportunities galore, he said, are lost to enduring enmity across the strait as Taiwan slips further into economic malaise.

“If the summit had happened, Taiwan wouldn’t be the way it is now,” he said. “It’d be prosperous.”

Taiwan is quite prosperous, thank you. Do people really think we can go back to the days of 8% annual growth? 5% is dandy, really.

This is a very interesting tale, but I think Chang overdramatizes the effect of such a meeting. It is far more likely that the Chinese would simply have insisted that Taiwan is part of China, and nothing would have come of it.