When Nikita Khrushchev became the first Soviet head of state to visit the United States in 1959, he surprised his hosts by saying he wanted “peaceful coexistence.” When Egyptian leader Anwar Sadat became the first Arab leader to visit Israel in 1977, he initiated a peace deal that remains a model for the Middle East. When President Obama shook hands with Cuban leader Raúl Castro at Nelson Mandela’s funeral in 2013, it led to a thaw in a half century of cool relations.
We cite these examples of historic meetings as a hopeful context for this weekend’s summit in Singapore between President Xi Jinping of China and Taiwan’s president, Ma Ying-jeou. The top leaders of these two countries have never met, a result of a split in 1949 when Communist forces under Mao Zedong took over the mainland and drove the Nationalist army of Chiang Kai-shek to flee to Taiwan. Each side still claims the island as theirs. Each keeps its militaries at the ready. Yet now after 66 years, China’s leader is eager for a summit. Why?
Mr. Xi’s motives are up for speculation. Does he want to prevent the people of Taiwan from drifting further away from the official idea of eventual reunification with the mainland? If so, he aims to influence Taiwan’s coming election, which is expected to be won by a party that could declare formal independence. The sophisticated voters of Taiwan will probably see Xi’s meddling for what it is.
Or is the summit part of a campaign to soften China’s image after its recent aggressive claims to many other islands in East Asia? China’s stumbling economy badly needs reforms as well as investments from its neighbors, including Taiwan. Peace overtures may help Xi change China’s image, even its direction.
In a region where symbols can serve as substance, the summit sends a signal that China is open to change. Perhaps Xi is ready to acknowledge that Taiwan has proved democracy can thrive in a Chinese culture – and that its people embrace civic principles like freedom over ethnic or cultural ties to the mainland. (Nearly two-thirds of the island’s residents see themselves as Taiwanese, not Chinese.)
China’s ruling Communist Party need not fear a Confucian democracy or Taiwan’s de facto independence. It has 1.35 billion people to worry about. Not Taiwan’s 23 million. As communist ideology has lost favor, the party need not resort to chauvinism. Xi’s outstretched hand to Taiwan should be one of friendship. If this summit proves to be historic, it must lead to a permanent peace.