- Meeting will be the first of its kind since 1949
- Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou, Chinese President Xi Jinping plan to meet
- The two sides split amid war in 1949, though relations have improved since Ma’s election in 2008
Chinese President Xi Jinping and Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou and will address each other as “mister” rather than their usual honorific titles, and will have dinner together after the meeting, China’s state-run Xinhua news agency reported, citing Zhang Zhijun, the director of China’s Taiwan Affairs Office.
Taiwan’s Central News Agency, citing senior government officials, said the two leaders did not expect to sign any agreement, but plan to discuss peace.
China and Taiwan — officially the People’s Republic of China and the Republic of China — separated in 1949 following the Communist victory in the civil war.
But China still considers the island a breakaway province and has warned that a formal declaration of independence could lead to military intervention.
To this day, it’s reported to have missiles pointed at the island.
Despite the rift, China is Taiwan’s biggest trade partner, hundreds of flights go between the two nations each week and Chinese banks now operate on the island, while some Taiwanese companies have factories in China.
Ma, head of the Nationalist Kuomintang party, has been a key driver in forging closer ties since he came to power in a 2008 election.
Still, major tensions persist — which is why having the heads of government meet face to face is a big deal.
Massive protests broke out in Taiwan, including students taking over the state’s legislative building, over a controversial proposed trade deal with China in 2014. The issue of closer ties with China remains divisive.
On Wednesday, opponents of the meeting gathered outside Taiwan’s parliament wielding placards that read: “Don’t come back if you go” and “Stop the China-Taiwan relationship.”
Ma’s party is struggling ahead of January’s presidential election. Michael J. Cole, a Taipei-based fellow of the China Policy Institute at the University of Nottingham in the UK, said the timing appeared aimed at boosting the ruling party’s chances of winning the majority vote.
Party leaders overwhelmingly voted to change its candidate last month after polls showed it trailing badly to the main opposition Democratic Progressive Party, which traditionally has maintained Taiwan’s political independence from Beijing. Ma can’t run due to term limits.
Within China, there’s also been resistance to a summit between the two leaders.
“There were apprehensions in Beijing that a meeting with the Taiwanese president might legitimize Taiwan as a sovereign state,” Cole said.
“Evidently, the meeting might be perceived as an attempt by Beijing to influence the elections at a time when the KMT looks very likely to be replaced by the DPP.”
The DPP said that relations between Beijing and Taipei were of national interest and should rise above partisan politics.
“President Ma’s surprise announcement of the meeting just days before the event and its lack of public consensus has added to his long record of opaque decision making,” the party said in a statement.
China’s Foreign Ministry had previously announced that Xi would be in Singapore on Saturday and Sunday at the invitation of President Tony Tan.
The United States maintained diplomatic relations with Taiwan until 1979 when it switched recognition to Beijing. But it has maintained unofficial relations with the island since then.
White House spokesman Josh Earnest said it welcomed any steps taken by both sides to try to reduce tensions.
“We’ll have to wait and see what actually comes out of the meeting,” he said.
READ: Taiwan president: I will not discuss unification
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