BEIJING: The presidents of China and Taiwan will meet this weekend for the first time since civil war divided their lands 66 years ago, their governments said Wednesday, a highly symbolic move that reflects quickly improving relations between the formerly bitter Cold War foes.
The meeting Saturday in Singapore between Chinese President Xi Jinping and his Taiwanese counterpart Ma Ying-jeou could be China’s last to press its case for closer economic and, ultimately political ties, before Taiwan elects a new president and legislature in January that could put the brakes on Ma’s pro-China initiatives.
For Ma’s ruling Nationalists, who have been lagging at the polls, it could boost their credentials for driving progress in relations with China, but also carries the risk of appearing too close to Beijing, further damaging their chances with skeptical voters.
Presidents of the two sides have not met since Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalists lost the Chinese civil war to Mao Zedong’s Communists and the Nationalists rebased in Taiwan 160 kilometers (100 miles) away in 1949. The two sides have been separately ruled since then, with Taiwan evolving into a freewheeling democracy. China insists that the two sides eventually reunite, by force if necessary.
Confirmation of the meeting from Chinese Cabinet’s Taiwan Affairs Office came hours after the Taiwanese side announced the meeting earlier Wednesday.
The two would be meeting in their capacity as “leaders of the two sides” of the Taiwan Strait, office director Zhang Zhijun was quoted as saying in a news release posted on the office’s website.
That appeared to afford them equal status, possibly an effort to blunt criticism from the pro-independence opposition in Taiwan who accuse Ma’s Nationalist Party of pandering to China’s ruling Communists.
“This is a pragmatic arrangement under the situation of the irresolution of cross-strait political differences on the basis of the one-China principle,” Zhang said, a reference to Beijing’s insistence that Taiwan and the mainland are part of a single Chinese nation.
The two sides never talked formally until Ma, president since 2008, set aside old hostilities to allow lower-level official meetings. China and Taiwan have signed 23 deals covering mainly trade, transit and investment, binding Taiwan closer to its top trading partner and the world’s second-largest economy.
Taiwanese presidential spokesman Charles Chen said in a statement Wednesday that the two would exchange ideas about relations but not sign any deals.
The choice of Singapore as venue was significant because the Southeast Asian city-state with an ethnic Chinese majority population has strong relations with both Taiwan and China and serves as neutral ground.
Singapore hosted breakthrough talks between unofficial Taiwanese and Chinese negotiators in 1992 that established a formula whereby they acknowledge that there is only one China, of which Taiwan is a part, but differ on the exact interpretation.
Although Beijing insists on the so-called “1992 consensus” as the basis for talks, Taiwan’s main opposition Democratic Progressive Party has refused to embrace it, calling it meaningless and unrepresentative of popular sentiment on the island.
Ma is stepping down as president next year after his maximum two terms, and the DPP’s candidate Tsai Ing-wen is considered the front-runner to replace him. A DPP victory could prompt a sweeping reassessment of its Taiwan polices by Beijing, which has hoped that economic inducements would lead to greater acceptance of eventual political unification.
Ma’s government has come under increasing criticism at home for cozying up to China, amid fears Beijing will eventually leverage economic relations to exert more power over the island.
Such sentiments helped the DPP to a landslide victory a year ago in local elections, raising the possibility it might win not only the presidency but also a majority in legislative elections also being held Jan. 16.
Given the chances of a Nationalist defeat, China is likely to proceed cautiously to avoid further alienating Taiwanese voters.
Xi warned Taiwan in 2013 against putting off political differences from generation to generation. China has long advocated a Hong Kong-style one-country, two-system form of joint rule, in which Beijing controls Taiwan but the island of 23 million retains control of its political, legal and economic affairs.
That approach has little currency in Taiwan, where most favor the current state of de-facto independence.
The statement from Ma’s spokesman said the two presidents will meet to “solidify Taiwan-mainland relations and keep the status quo across the Taiwan Strait.”
“To hold a meeting across the Taiwan Strait is the consistent goal of leaders on both sides,” Ma’s spokesman said in the statement. “President Ma recently has repeated many times that ‘at the right time and on the right occasion and in the right capacity’ he would not rule out a meeting.”
Taiwanese officials planned to hold a news conference about the Singapore meeting later Wednesday, and Ma planned to hold one on Thursday.
In Washington, White House spokesman Josh Earnest said the U.S. would welcome steps taken on both sides of the Taiwan Strait to try to reduce tensions and improve relations, but added, “we’ll have to see what actually comes out of the meeting.”
Ma is likely hoping for some reassurance from Xi over the use of force and closer economic ties that could help Nationalist Presidential candidate Eric Chu in the polls, said Hong Kong Chinese politics expert Willy Lam. Xi, for his part, likewise hopes a friendly, non-threatening meeting could give the Nationalists a boost, while showing a Chinese domestic audience that he could be the best bet in decades for achieving unification.
“This could be good for his reputation and a feather in his cap,” said Lam.
While the meeting is meant to showcase the Nationalist’s adeptness at dealing with China, it carries significant risks for the party, said Sean King, senior vice president with the consultancy Park Strategies in New York and a frequent commentator on Asian affairs.
“This meeting will only hurt the Nationalists at home, as it will cause them to even more be seen as Beijing’s preferred Taiwan party,” King said. “This could be the mainland’s last chance to liaise with the Nationalist Party, while it’s in power, for years to come.”