The leaders of China and Taiwan held a carefully managed meeting that marks the first summit since the two sides clashed in a civil war seven decades ago, pledging warmer ties to go alongside their increasingly intertwined economies.
Chinese President Xi Jinping and Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou in suits, with Xi wearing a red tie and Ma a blue one shook hands in a Singapore hotel for about one and a half minutes, waved and smiled for the cameras, before they held around 50 minutes of closed-door talks. The meeting required them to navigate delicate protocol including calling each other “mister” rather than “president”.
Xi focused his opening remarks heavily on the idea of one Chinese people across the strait, stressing commonality and continuity ahead of Taiwan’s presidential election in January. In 1992, China and Taiwan agreed to acknowledge the existence of “one China” while keeping their own interpretation of what that means.
“We are brothers connected by flesh even if our bones are broken, we are a family whose blood is thicker than water,” Xi said. “History has left some bad memories but the strait cannot prevent relatives and friends from missing each other,” he said. “Chinese people on the two sides of the strait have the ability and wisdom to solve their own problems.”
Ma responded that both sides should respect each other’s values and way of life, and proposed a hotline between cross-strait agencies. “Mr. Xi, right now ties between us are the best we’ve seen since 1949,” he said.
“What confronts us is the need to use understanding to get rid of conflict and to look forward to prosperity,” Ma said. “We need to announce to the world that we want to consolidate ties across the strait.”
The tete-a-tete, which comes before Ma leaves office in a few months, ensures the politically divisive China issue remains at the center of Taiwan’s election. Ma’s Kuomintang, or Nationalist party, has caused unease with voters by bringing the two sides closer economically and the party’s candidate is trailing the opposition Democratic Progressive Party’s Tsai Ing-wen in opinion polls.
For Xi, the meeting may help Communist Party leaders in Beijing secure gains that have seen the country become Taiwan’s biggest trading partner. The talks come at the end of his state visit to Singapore and ahead of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum meeting in Manila later this month.
“It’s relatively smart of President Xi to come up with the concession” of a meeting, said Hoo Tiang Boon, an assistant professor at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore. “It’s sending a message that even if the DPP wins the presidential election and as long as they don’t go overboard and as long as you respect the one China policy and certain parameters defined by China, then he doesn’t mind meeting whoever is the president of Taiwan.”
Speaking to reporters after the summit, Zhang Zhijun, head of China’s Taiwan Affairs Office, said Xi had agreed with Ma that a hotline would help the two sides handle problems, and that China understood Taiwan’s desire for a bigger international presence. Taiwan would be welcome to take part in the China-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, Zhang cited Xi as saying.
But while Zhang said Xi had pledged that China would not get involved in the election, he also said the cross-strait relationship was not state-to-state and calls for independence for Taiwan were the biggest threat to peace. “We shall never accept or tolerate the separatists. We hold the same attitude as always,” Zhang said.
Ma told reporters afterwards that he had found Xi to be “very straight forward.” Taiwan’s future leaders should keep to the 1992 consensus and the status quo, he said.
“Given the state of relations, the fact that we haven’t met is weird,” Ma said. “We should make it frequent and not something unusual.”
Domestic media in Taiwan provided marathon coverage of the event, with some criticism of Ma’s failure to emphasize the “different interpretations” of the one-China principle.