Sunday 22 September 2019

China and Taiwan leaders to meet after decades of hostility

Taiwan President Ma Ying-jeou (L) and Chinese President Xi Jinping (R). Reuters/Pichi Chuang /Muneyoshi Someya /Files
Taiwan President Ma Ying-jeou (L) and Chinese President Xi Jinping (R). Reuters/Pichi Chuang /Muneyoshi Someya /Files

The presidents of China and Taiwan will meet for the first time since civil war divided their lands 66 years ago.

Saturday's meeting in Singapore between China's President Xi Jinping and his Taiwanese counterpart Ma Ying-jeoua is a highly symbolic move that reflects quickly improving relations between the formerly bitter Cold War foes.

It 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 Mr Ma's pro-China initiatives.

For Mr 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 sceptical voters.

The presidents of the two sides have not met since Chiang Kai-shek's nationalists lost the Chinese civil war to Mao's communists in the 1940s. After the war the Nationalist Party rebased itself in Taiwan, 100 miles away, in 1949. The two sides have been ruled separately since then, with Taiwan evolving into a freewheeling democracy.

China insists that the two sides eventually reunite, by force if necessary.

News of the breakthrough from the Chinese cabinet's Taiwan Affairs Office came hours after Taiwan announced the meeting.

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.

That appeared to afford them equal status, possibly an effort to blunt criticism from the pro-independence opposition in Taiwan who accuse Mr Ma's Nationalist Party of pandering to China's ruling Communist Party.

"This is pragmatic arrangement given the situation of the irresolution of cross-strait political differences and one on the of the one-China principle," Mr Zhang said - a reference to Beijing's insistence that Taiwan and the mainland are part of a single Chinese nation.

Taiwanese presidential spokesman Charles Chen said the leaders would exchange ideas about relations between the two sides, but not sign any deals.

But there were protests in Taiwan's capital Taipei, with opposition supporters shouting slogans and carrying placards which read "Don't come back if you go" and "Stop China-Taiwan relationship".

The two sides never talked formally until Mr Ma, the Nationalist president since 2008, lay aside old hostilities to set up 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.

The choice of Singapore as venue was significant because the south-east 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.

Mr 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.

Mr Ma's government has come under increasing criticism at home for cosying 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 on January 16.

Given the chances of a Nationalist defeat, China is likely to proceed cautiously to avoid further alienating Taiwanese voters.

Mr 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 favour the current state of de-facto independence.

The statement from Mr Chen said the two presidents would 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," he said. "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 plan to hold a news conference about the Singapore meeting later and Mr Ma is to hold one tomorrow.

In Washington, White House spokesman Josh Earnest said the US 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."

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