Taiwan-China meeting brings together former Cold War foes
BEIJING (AP) — The presidents of China and Taiwan are meeting this weekend for the first time since the Chinese revolution ended in 1949, with the once-bitter Cold War foes testing years of rapidly warming ties.
The meeting, which was announced Wednesday and would have been nearly unthinkable even a decade ago, marks a watershed in relations between Beijing and Taipei, whose enmity had once been feared as a possible flashpoint for another world war.
Chinese President Xi Jinping and his Taiwanese counterpart Ma Ying-jeou will meet on neutral ground in Singapore, the Asian city-state whose government maintains friendly ties with both. The talks would be the first between the leaders since Taiwan split from mainland China at the end of the civil war.
Saturday’s meeting could also be the last chance for Xi to press China’s case for closer economic and political ties before Taiwan’s January elections for the presidency and legislature.
Already the most powerful Chinese leader in decades, Xi would benefit from a successful outcome to the meeting by appearing to further what China calls the “great goal of national unification.”
The meeting is riskier for Ma, whose ruling Nationalist Party is lagging in polls. The elections could serve as an unofficial referendum on Ma’s pro-China policies, and his party could be dragged down further by perceptions Ma is pandering to China’s ruling Communists to burnish his own legacy and benefit the island’s pro-China elite.
A win for the opposition could see a significant curtailing of Ma’s pro-China initiatives, something Beijing would be loath to witness.
“This will be tricky politically in Taiwan, as the opposition will obviously use this to charge Ma and the Nationalists with kowtowing to Beijing,” said Alan Romberg, East Asia program director with Washington think tank the Stimson Center.
Yet Saturday’s meeting could also boost the Nationalists’ credentials for driving progress in relations with China and heading off past threats and hostility from Beijing that rattled many Taiwanese. It may also help that the meeting puts Ma, leader of 23 million people, on equal footing with the leader of the world’s most populous country and its second-largest economy.
“Ma and presumably the rest of the Nationalists will cast this as demonstrating the benefits of adhering to the 1992 Consensus as a constructive basis for handling cross-strait relations — indeed as the indispensable basis,” Romberg said.
The 1992 Consensus refers to an agreement that formed the basis of talks between the two sides, under which both consider Taiwan and the mainland to be one country with separate interpretations according to their own constitutions.
The main pro-independence opposition Democratic Progressive Party has refused to recognize the consensus, calling it meaningless and unrepresentative of popular sentiment on the island.
Formal talks came after Ma, president since 2008, set aside old hostilities to allow lower-level official meetings. Taiwan and China, its top trading partner, have signed 23 deals covering mainly trade, transit and investment.
Ma is likely hoping for even closer economic ties, as well as security assurances from Beijing, which despite warming relations still insists that the two sides must eventually reunite, by force if necessary.
Any concessions Ma extracts from China could help Nationalist presidential candidate Eric Chu in the polls, said Hong Kong Chinese politics expert Willy Lam. Xi, for his part, also hopes a friendly, non-threatening meeting gives the Nationalists a boost, while showing mainland Chinese that he could be the best bet in decades for achieving unification.
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) from the mainland, in 1949. The two sides have been separately ruled since then, with Taiwan evolving into a freewheeling democracy.
Confirmation of the meeting from Chinese Cabinet’s Taiwan Affairs Office came hours after the Taiwanese side announced the meeting earlier Wednesday.
According to the two, Xi and Ma will be meeting as “leaders of the two sides” of the Taiwan Strait, and address each other by the title of “Mr.” A banquet will be held after their meeting.
The arrangements avoid the phrases “countries” and “president,” in line with Beijing’s insistence that Taiwan is not a sovereign nation, but part of China as a single country.
In a statement, the DPP criticized Ma for planning the meeting in secret and said it appeared to be intended to influence elections.
“This once again shows the Ma government’s tendency to do things in a black box, violate democracy and evade oversight, and the public will have difficulty accepting this,” the statement read.
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.
Beijing has hoped that economic inducements would lead to greater acceptance among Taiwanese of eventual political reunification. A DPP victory could prompt Beijing to reassess its policies and become more hard-line in pressuring Taiwan into a political union.
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. The Nationalists replaced their presidential candidate Oct. 17, highlighting their disarray.
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.
Pro-independence demonstrators rallied outside the legislature in Taipei to protest the planned meeting. One banner urged Ma, “Don’t come back if you go.”
“We will resolutely oppose this,” Hung Te-jen said. “Ma is sneaking around to sell off Taiwan.”
Jennings reported from Taipei. Associated Press writers Ian Mader in Beijing and Matthew Pennington in Washington contributed to this report.
Landmark China meet could alienate Taiwanese: analysts
A historic China-Taiwan summit this weekend is likely an attempt to boost Beijing’s image ahead of elections on the island, but one that could alienate voters wary of mainland meddling, say analysts.
Taiwan’s President Ma Ying-jeou and his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping will meet in Singapore on Saturday, in what will be the first face-to-face between leaders since the end of a civil war in 1949.
The surprise summit will come less then three months before presidential elections in Taiwan that the ruling China-friendly Kuomintang (KMT) is expected to lose.
“This is a powerful initiative and its objective is obvious: help as much as possible (KMT candidate) Eric Chu in his presidential bid,” said Jean-Pierre Cabestan, professor of political science at Hong Kong Baptist University.
Beijing still considers the island part of its territory, even though it has been governed separately since Nationalist leader Chiang Kai-shek and his KMT forces fled to Taiwan after losing the civil war to Mao Zedong’s communists.
China cherishes the idea that what it considers a renegade province will one day willingly reunite with the mainland, but has regularly warned it is prepared to use military force to achieve this aim.
Decades of distrust have left the coastlines on either side of the Taiwan strait bristling with weaponry — much of Taipei’s supplied by the United States.
Ma’s 2008 election marked a change in ties, with a softer, more conciliatory approach he sold to the electorate as a way to bolster prosperity on the island.
Trade and tourism have boomed during the rapprochement, but Taiwan’s feisty and independent-minded voters are increasingly wary of the warmer relationship.
Islanders have looked askance at Beijing’s authoritarian handling of Hong Kong, where promises of steadily increasing democracy made ahead of its 1997 return to Chinese rule have proved hollow.
Taiwan’s main opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), which has traditionally favoured the declaration of full independence, looks set to be the beneficiary of the growing China scepticism.
“The whole event could very well backfire against the KMT, Eric Chu and China, as many Taiwanese voters are going to have a negative reaction against this… more powerful interference in their domestic affairs and democratic political process,” Cabestan told AFP.
– ‘Risk to stability’ –
“Electorally, I think (it) makes the probability of a DPP landslide… larger,” Nathan Batto, an assistant research fellow at Taiwan’s Academia Sinica’s Institute of Political Science, said in a blog post.
Batto added the meeting would make the already concerned electorate “uneasy”.
Around 50 protesters from opposition political parties gathered outside the parliament building in Taipei Wednesday morning as the parliamentary speaker was briefed on details of the summit.
Public reaction online and on social media was mixed, with some saying the meeting was long overdue but others accusing Ma of selling out Taiwan.
DPP candidate Tsai Ing-wen has said if she is elected she will seek to maintain the “status quo” — she has not defined her policy, but it is taken to mean de facto independence that is never formally declared.
Supporters say stopping short of formally declaring a breakaway allows Taiwan to benefit from China’s booming economy but maintains the self-governance many Taiwanese hold dear.
The KMT has questioned exactly how she will achieve this, particularly given the voices in her own party clamouring for an explicit split.
Any move towards formal independence would likely spark an aggressive — possibly armed — response from Beijing.
Meanwhile, Ma has defended his China-friendly strategy as having achieved peace in the region and the KMT has warned that a vote for the DPP would destabilise relations.
The White House gave a cautious welcome to the announcement of a meeting between its major rival, China, and regional ally Taiwan, saying it was glad of steps to reduce tensions.
Taiwan has said that no agreements or joint statements would be signed, a move analysts say is designed to assuage nervous voters.
“The coming Taiwanese elections add to the political risks for both sides,” said John Ciorciari, assistant professor at the University of Michigan’s Ford School of Public Policy.
“Ma Ying-jeou and Xi Jinping are doubtless concerned that their summit will help Tsai Ing-wen expand her lead as the Taiwanese electorate drifts away from the mainland.”
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Taiwan’s opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) candidate Tsai Ing-wen explains that Taiwan President Ma Ying-jeou needs to explain to the Taiwan people his intent in the upcoming meeting in Singapore with China’s President Xi Jinping at the party headquarters in Taipei, Taiwan, Wednesday, Nov. 4, 2015. Taiwan’s President Ma and China President Xi will meet in Singapore, Saturday, Nov. 7, 2015, 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. (AP Photo/Chiang Ying-ying)