Chinese President Xi Jinping will hold talks with the leader of neighbouring Taiwan on Saturday, the first such meeting between the two political rivals since the Chinese civil war ended in 1949 and coming weeks ahead of elections on the island.
The meeting in Singapore coincides with rising anti-China sentiment in Taiwan ahead of the presidential and parliamentary polls in January which the pro-China Kuomintang (KMT) is likely to lose to the opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), which traditionally favours independence from China. Taiwan President Ma Ying-jeou, who steps down next year due to term limits, has made improving economic links with China a key policy since he took office in 2008. He has signed landmark business and tourism deals, though there has been no progress in resolving their political differences.
Andrew Hsia, head of the Mainland Affairs Council, Taiwan's ministry in charge of China policy, said the meeting underscored both sides' dedication to peace. But DPP presidential candidate Tsai Ing-wen asked why the announcement had come out of the blue. "I believe people across the country, like me, felt very surprised," she said in prepared remarks to reporters. "To let the people know in such a hasty and chaotic manner is damaging to Taiwan's democracy."
Political experts said China could be working to shape the result of the elections by trying to show that ties would continue to improve if Taiwan remains ruled by the KMT. DPP spokesman Cheng Yun-peng said the timing of the meeting was suspect. "How can people not think of this as a political operation intended to affect the election?" he said.
Hsia said the push for the meeting, initiated by the head of China's Taiwan Affairs Office, was neither rushed nor opaque and that there would be no secret deals reached. "We adhered to open and transparent principles and absolutely did not use a rushed, chaotic black-box manner," he told reporters. But some analysts said it could backfire, given increasing anti-China protests, especially among the young.
Small groups of protesters gathered outside Taiwan's parliament yesterday. Ma's office said in a statement the purpose of his trip was to "maintain the status quo". He said no agreements would be signed or joint statements agreed to, it added. Zhang Zhijun, head of China's Taiwan Affairs Office, said the leaders would "exchange views on promoting the peaceful development of cross-Taiwan Straits relations", according to a statement carried by the official Xinhua news agency.
He called the meeting a milestone that would help manage conflict and would gain "wide support from all walks of life across the Strait and the international community". The two leaders were expected to have dinner after their meeting and will address each other as "mister", Zhang said, presumably to avoid calling each other Mr. President, as neither officially recognises the other as head of state.
The meeting came about after Chinese and Taiwanese officials met in the Chinese city of Guangzhou last month, he added. Singapore's Foreign Ministry said it was asked by the two sides to "facilitate the meeting". Zheng Zhenqing at Beijing's Tsinghua University Institute of Taiwan Studies said it was wrong to link the meeting directly to the election but that it did underscore a determination to get Taiwan to recognise the "one China" principle.
In 1996, then-Chinese President Jiang Zemin ordered missile tests and war games in the seas around Taiwan to try to 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.