Chinese president to meet Taiwanese counterpart in Singapore

Chinese President Xi Jinping will meet Taiwan President Ma Ying-jeou in Singapore on Saturday, Chinese state news agency Xinhua said on Wednesday.

1st meeting of leaders from the rivals since the Chinese civil war ended in 1949

Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou , left, and Chinese President Xi Jinping will meet in Singapore on Saturday to exchange views. (Pichi Chuang/Muneyoshi Someya/Reuters )

Chinese President Xi Jinping will hold talks with his Taiwanese counterpart Ma Ying-jeou in Singapore on Saturday in the first such meeting of leaders from the two rivals since the Chinese civil war ended in 1949.

The historic meeting comes at a sensitive time in Taiwan, with elections for a new president and legislature being held on Jan. 16 amid rising anti-China sentiment, particularly among younger Taiwanese who don't believe Taiwan benefits from closer economic ties with its giant neighbour.

Ma's office said in a statement that the purpose of his trip was to "consolidate cross-strait peace and maintain the status quo". Ma would not sign any agreements, nor issue any joint statements with China during the trip, it added.

Zhang Zhijun, head of China's Taiwan Affairs Office, said the two leaders will "exchange views on promoting the peaceful development of cross-Taiwan Straits relations", according to a statement carried by the official Xinhua news agency.

"This is a pragmatic arrangement made in accordance with the one-China principle under the situation where the political dispute across the Taiwan Strait has yet to be resolved," Zhang added.

China deems the island a breakaway province to be taken back, by force if necessary, particularly if it makes moves toward independence. Ma has made improving economic links with China a key policy since he took office in 2008, and has signed a series of landmark business and tourism deals, though there has been no progress on resolving their political differences.

He is set to step down next year due to term limits, with his ruling pro-China Nationalist Party, known as the Kuomintang (KMT), trailing badly in opinion polls behind the opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), which traditionally favours independence and is loathed by the Chinese Communist Party.

KMT presidential candidate Eric Chu supports a continuation of Ma's China policies. The DPP says it believes only Taiwan's people can decide its future. Beijing takes this to mean it wants independence. DPP presidential frontrunner Tsai Ing-wen has said she will "maintain the status quo" but has not elaborated on how she plans to do so.

Experts said China could be trying to influence the election, adding Ma was taking a risk in meeting Xi with the poll only 10 weeks away. China could be trying to show that ties will improve if Taiwan continues to be ruled by the KMT, said Aaron Friedberg, professor at the Woodrow Wilson School at Princeton University.

Xi and Ma will talk about 'promoting the peaceful development of cross-Taiwan Straits relations,' a statement from Xinhua said. It's not clear what will be on the agenda. (Jason Lee/Associated Press)

"It's conceivable that they had something like that in mind. They may be rewarding President Ma for policies that he has pursued, that in general have tended to favour closer relations between Taiwan and the mainland," Friedberg said.

Bonnie Glaser, an Asia expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, said there had been a shift in public opinion in Taiwan towards more skepticism about the relationship with China. "There is less public support for forging economic cooperation agreements with the mainland, than there was when Ma Ying-jeou came to power," Glaser said. "It's hard to see how this (meeting) is really going to help his party remain in power."

Protests expected 

Protesters are expected to gather outside Taiwan's parliament on Wednesday, where the cabinet would meet with leaders of parliament and the island's political parties to discuss the trip. Taiwan's Mainland Affairs Council, the island's top China policymaking body, will hold a press conference on Wednesday, while Ma will hold a news briefing on Thursday, the presidential office said.

Elections for a new president and legislature will be held in Taiwan on Jan. 16. Ma can't run again because of term limit rules. (Wally Santana/Associated Press)

White House spokesman Josh Earnest told reporters it was too early to call the meeting a turning point. "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," Earnest said. "But, you know, we'll have to see what actually comes out of the meeting."

Chiang Kai-shek's Nationalists fled to Taiwan following their defeat by Mao Zedong's Communists at the end of the Chinese civil war. Since then Taiwan has been self-ruled. Previous Chinese attempts to influence Taiwan's elections have backfired.

In 1996, then-Chinese President Jiang Zemin ordered live fire missile tests and war games in the seas around Taiwan to try and intimidate voters not to back Lee Teng-hui, who China believed was moving the island closer to formal independence. The crisis brought the two sides to the verge of conflict and prompted the United States to sail a carrier task force through the Taiwan Strait in a warning to Beijing. Lee won the election by a landslide.

In March this year, Ma flew to Singapore to pay his respects after the death of the city-state's first prime minister, Lee Kuan Yew, a diplomatically sensitive visit given China's stance that Taiwan is a renegade province. China, which maintains a good relationship with Singapore, holds that there is only "One China" and Taiwan is part of it. However, Singapore also maintains a close, informal relationship with Taiwan and the two signed a free trade pact in 2013. In 1993, Singapore was the location of the first direct talks between China and Taiwan since 1949.


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