Historic China-Taiwan Presidents Meeting Causes Alarm in Taipei

Ma Ying-jeou, Xi Jingping
The Associated Press

Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou and the head of the People’s Republic of China, Xi Jinping, will meet in person in Singapore on Saturday, the first time a meeting between these nations’ heads of state has occurred since 1949.

Chinese state news outlet Xinhua reports that the meeting will consist of two sessions, one in private and one open to the media. Both sides have provided only vague hints at what the conversation will consist of. The men are expected to discuss “promoting development” and “cross-strait relations.” The Taipei Times reports that the Taiwanese Presidential Office described the purpose of the visit to Singapore generally as intended to “maintain the ‘status quo.'”

Taiwan Affairs Office of the State Council director Zhang Zhijun told the New York Times that the meeting, announced suddenly on Wednesday, had been set “given the situation of the irresolution of cross-strait political differences.” The Times notes that, while unexpected and sudden, the meeting was preceded by a similar one between representatives of the two nations last year, and that Ma has been seeking a one-on-one meeting with Xi for years in the hope of keeping the tense relations between China and Taiwan peaceful. China considers Taiwan part of greater China, while Taiwan (the Republic of China) has operated as a sovereign nation since the Kuomintang established itself there after being defeated on the mainland in 1949.

As neither leader considers the other their head of state, the men will address each other as “Mister.”

A spokesman for President Ma has confirmed to reporters that the meeting will result in “no agreement” or any “joint statement” from the two leaders.

The meeting arrives as Taiwan prepares for presidential elections in January, where the Kuomintang, which is seen as having a softer stance against China, is expected to lose against the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), whose candidates have campaigned on having deeper commitments to Taiwanese independence. DPP leaders have issued a strong rebuke of the meeting.

“A meeting of the leaders of the two sides across the [Taiwan] Strait is a great event, involving the dignity and national interests of Taiwan, but to let the public know in such a hasty and chaotic manner is damaging to Taiwan’s democracy,” said DPP presidential candidate Tsai Ing-wen, who is currently the presidential frontrunner. Tsai described her reaction to the news as “surprised.” Cheng Yun-peng, a spokesman for the party, put his concerns more bluntly: “How can people not think of this as a political operation intended to affect the election?”

The announcement of talks has triggered protests before the Taipei Parliament, with protesters objecting to the meeting as a “shot at Taiwan’s democracy.”

Chinese officials quoted in state media, in contrast, have welcomed the talks. Yu Zhengsheng, described as a “senior office” in the Chinese Communist Party, issued a call to businessowners to be open to doing business with Taiwan and “be confident of the prospects of cross-Strait economic cooperation.” He described the talks as important or “opposing Taiwan independence.”

The United States is keeping its distance from the talks. “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… We’ll have to see what actually comes out of the meeting,” White House press secretary Josh Earnest told reporters.