Saturday 24 August 2019

China and Taiwan hold first talks since bitter 1949 split

Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou
Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou

Neil Connor

The presidents of China and Taiwan reached across decades of Cold War-era estrangement and rivalry yesterday to exchange a historic handshake in the first meeting between the two since their traumatic 1949 split.

China's communist leader Xi Jinping spoke of "ties of flesh" across the Taiwan Strait as he met his counterpart Ma Ying-jeou in Singapore for top-level talks which follow decades of hostility and distrust.

"The 66-year history of cross-Strait relations testifies that no matter how great the difficulty, no matter how many risks there are, no force can pull us apart," Mr Xi told Mr Ma.

"We are brothers, connected by flesh even if our bones are broken. We are a family whose blood is thicker than water."

The meeting comes weeks before elections on the island which are expected to result in victory for Mr Ma's rivals, the Democratic Progressive Party - a result Beijing is desperate to avoid given the DPP's traditional stance in favour of independence from China.

Mr Ma's Nationalists, also known as the Kuomintang (KMT), fled to Taiwan in retreat from Mao Zedong's Communists at the end of the civil war. China maintains it will eventually reunify the island, by force if necessary.

"Even though this is the first meeting, we feel like old friends," Mr Ma told the Chinese president. "Behind us is history stretching for 60 years. Now before our eyes there are fruits of conciliation instead of confrontation."

Mr Xi was the first to reach out as the two men clasped hands for a handshake lasting at least 80 seconds in front of a backdrop of yellow - a traditional colour of Chinese emperors. The pair occasionally shuffled sideways during the drawn-out gesture to accommodate a mass of photographers as Mr Ma grinned heavily throughout.

The two leaders met for only an hour, and while the occasion was heavy in symbolism, no deals or announcements are expected.

"The visuals are important for them," said J Michael Cole, a Taiwan expert from the University of Nottingham. "It is a landmark meeting, but in terms of substance there is practically nothing."

The meeting was the first since Chairman Mao met with China's nationalist president Chiang Kai-shek in a failed reconciliation attempt in 1945.

After the meeting, Mr Ma said he had discussed security issues with Mr Xi.

The Taiwanese president is to step down due to a two-term limit ahead of the January 16 elections, when DPP candidate Tsai Ing-wen is expected to win the presidential poll.

The ruling party suffered its heaviest local election defeat last year, with many observers saying its policies aimed at forging closer ties with Beijing were a factor.

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