President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) and Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平) are to meet in Singapore on Saturday, the first such meeting since the Chinese Communist revolution of 1949 and the retreat of the then-Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) administration across the Taiwan Strait.
The Beijing office in charge of Taiwan relations said in a brief statement that the two leaders would exchange views on promoting developments during a long-scheduled two-day visit of Xi to Singapore, a country that has good relations with both sides.
China’s Taiwan Affairs Office Minister Zhang Zhijun (張志軍) said the meeting had been arranged “given the situation of the irresolution of cross-strait political differences.”
A spokesman for Ma, whose KMT is floundering at the polls before the presidential and legislative elections on Jan. 16, announced the meeting late on Tuesday night.
Presidential Office spokesperson Charles Chen (陳以信) said that no agreements were envisioned.
The meeting with Ma fits with the bold style of Xi, who has shown that he likes to take more risks in foreign policy than his predecessors.
He has sought strong connections with Britain and the European continent as a counterweight to the US, and met with Burmese leader of the opposition Aung San Suu Kyi, even though China has traditionally supported the military in Myanmar.
Xi is to arrive in Singapore from a visit to Vietnam, a country also ruled by a Communist party, but that has had testy relations with China.
The encounter with Ma comes after Xi has pushed China’s regional aspirations to the fore by building artificial islands in the South China Sea and, soon after becoming president, taking a strong anti-Japan stance.
The gesture toward Ma shows a more conciliatory side, one that might not help to pull off a victory for the KMT, but nonetheless, could be interpreted as not particularly threatening.
However, the encounter with Ma could produce a backlash in Taiwan, prompting more voters to support the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), which has held a commanding lead in the polls over the past year.
Even if the KMT does not win, the meeting could set the groundwork for changes that suit China in the long run, according to Wang Yangjin (王英京), a professor of political science at Renmin University of China in Beijing, who specializes in Taiwan-China relations.
“There are very good economic relations between China and Taiwan, but we cannot expect any breakthrough on politics,” said Shi Yinhong (時殷弘), a professor of international relations at the university. “If they had met two years ago it would have been quite important politically, but now I don’t think this can produce any substantial political impact.”
Despite the improved ties in recent years, the Chinese government continues to adhere to its policy that Taiwan is a breakaway province and that unification is inevitable — by force if necessary.
Chiang Kai-shek (蔣介石) and Mao Zedong (毛澤東) met in Chongqing, China’s wartime capital, in August 1945. While lower-level representatives of the two sides continued to meet during the Chinese Civil War, Mao and Chiang never met again, University of Hong Kong history professor Xu Guoqi (徐國琦) said.
Last year, representatives of Taiwan and China met officially for the first time since the revolution. The meeting in Nanjing, China, produced no major breakthroughs, but was seen as the result of Ma’s efforts to forge closer ties.
Trade has more than doubled during Ma’s presidency, and Taiwan eased restrictions on travelers from China, who have visited in large numbers.
On Tuesday evening, the White House welcomed word of the meeting, but reserved judgement on its meaning for the future relationship between Taiwan and China.
“We would certainly welcome steps that are taken on both sides of the Taiwan Strait to try to reduce tensions and improve cross-strait relations,” White House press secretary Josh Earnest said. “We’ll have to see what actually comes out of the meeting.”
Many in Taiwan remain wary of China’s ultimate intentions. Student protesters took over the legislature’s main chamber for nearly a month last year to force reconsideration of a trade in services agreement with China. In local elections last year, the KMT suffered sharp losses, partly over the party’s China policy.
In Beijing, leaders have been cautious about meeting Taiwanese officials out of fear of legitimizing the government, which for more than half a century they had sought to isolate.
Some analysts said that although the KMT was doing badly in opinion polls, there was an overall sentiment in Taiwan for the “status quo” with China, and that Xi could tap into that by showing through the meeting that the huge Taiwanese investments in China had helped Taiwan prosper.
A meeting between Ma and Xi was discussed as a possibility during the ASEAN summit in Beijing in November last year, but Ma’s request for such an encounter was turned down by the Chinese, who were the hosts of the event, a senior Asian diplomat said, requesting anonymity to discuss a sensitive matter.
“Mr Xi must be looking to do Mr Ma a favor, he has been asking for this for a long time,” the diplomat said.
Even though it might be difficult to see how the halo of Xi would affect the KMT, especially given fears of China, there was still a strong undercurrent of not wanting to return to anything approaching Cold War hostility the diplomat said.
“China wants to give the Kuomintang some support because as things stand, the DPP will win in Taiwan,” the diplomat said.
“The Xi meeting may show that the Kuomintang is better able to deal with China than the DPP. I don’t think anyone in Taiwan wants to rock the boat with China,” the diplomat added.
“There certainly is the potential that this meeting could shake the election up,” Nathan Batto, a political scientist at Academia Sinica, wrote in a blog post yesterday.
“However, for it to provide a real boost to KMT electoral prospects, I think something more than a simple handshake would be necessary,” he added, referring to the KMT. “Many people will be very uneasy at the prospect of an unpopular lame-duck president trying to fundamentally change the ‘status quo’ in the last few months of his presidency.”
Additional reporting by Rick Gladstone
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