Image: A combination photograph shows Taiwan President Ma Ying-jeou (L) listening to a question during an interview with Reuters at the Presidential Office in Taipei in this June 1, 2012 file photograph and Chinese President Xi Jinping (R) smiling before his meeting at the Diaoyutai State Guesthouse in Beijing, China October 29, 2015 file photo. REUTERS/Pichi Chuang /Muneyoshi Someya /Files
By J.R. Wu
SINGAPORE (Reuters) – Leaders of political rivals Taiwan and China will meet on Saturday for the first time in more than 60 years for talks that come amid rising anti-Beijing sentiment on the self-ruled democratic island and weeks ahead of elections.
The talks between China President Xi Jinping and Taiwan President Ma Ying-jeou, the first such meeting since China’s civil war ended in 1949, are to be held in the neutral venue of Singapore.
They come ahead of presidential and parliamentary elections on Taiwan in which the independence-leaning Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) is favoured to win, something Beijing is desperate to avoid.
The Nationalists, also known as the Kuomintang (KMT), retreated to Taiwan after losing the civil war to the Communists, who are still in charge in Beijing.
China has never renounced the use of force to bring what it considers a breakaway province under its control.
But while bilateral trade, investment and tourism have blossomed – particularly since Ma and his KMT took power in 2008 – there is deep suspicion on both sides and no progress has been made on any sort of political settlement.
“I am here to promise to everyone, we must be doing our best to reach the goal that we set previously, making the Taiwan Strait more peaceful, making the two sides more cooperative,” Ma told reporters before boarding his flight to Singapore.
Ma, chatting to reporters on board, as Taiwan air force jets escorted his aircraft out of Taiwan air space, said he was neither too nervous nor too relaxed about the meeting.
“This is an important task. We need to do well at every stage,” he said.
No agreements are expected in what is seen as a highly symbolic get-together at a luxury hotel in Singapore, a largely ethnic Chinese city-state that has maintained good ties with both for decades.
China’s official Xinhua news agency said Xi and Ma would “exchange views on promoting the peaceful development of cross-Strait relations and discuss major issues in deepening cross-Strait cooperation and improving people’s welfare”.
But the handshake sure to take place comes as Xi hopes to cement his place among China’s pantheon of great leaders and Ma, stepping down next year due to term limits, tries to shape his legacy marred by growing anti-Beijing feeling in Taiwan.
“At this historic juncture of a meeting between leaders from both sides of Taiwan Strait, we genuinely hope that both sides can show sincerity, demonstrate goodwill, meet each other half way and confront their difficulties,” China’s official People’s Daily wrote on Saturday.
While China is laudatory, concerns have been raised in Taiwan.
“(Ma) cannot sell out and sacrifice Taiwan’s interests,” said Chao Tien-lin, director of the department of China affairs of the DPP.
“He must meet the expectations of democracy and public opinion in Taiwan. This is what we care most about.”
Ma and Xi meet in the afternoon. Both sides will hold news conferences after a short closed-door meeting, followed by dinner before Ma flies back to Taiwan the same day.
“It will be of huge symbolic importance, but will not be a ‘game-changer’, as Taiwanese voters are wary of the mainland’s rising influence over the island”, Yoel Sano, head of political risk with BMI Research, said of the meeting.
Ma will present Xi bottles of spirits made on two groups of islands just off the mainland that have been occupied by Taiwan forces since the end of the civil war.
He will also present Xi with a ceramic sculpture of a Taiwan blue magpie perched on a leafy green branch as a gift for their first meeting, a bird unique to the island, Taiwan’s presidential office said.
Chinese state media said the leaders would eat their dinner at a round table, presumably to avoid the thorny protocol issue of who would sit at the head of it.
(Additional reporting by Damon Lin in Taipei; Writing by Ben Blanchard; Editing by Robert Birsel)
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