China, Taiwan presidents plan rare meeting as Taiwan election looms

President Xi Jinping is due to meet Taiwan's Ma Ying-jeou in Singapore on Saturday. Taiwan is holding elections in January and Mr. Ma's party is trailing in the polls.

Pichi Chuang & Muneyoshi Someya /Reuters/Files
Taiwan President Ma Ying-jeou (L) and Chinese President Xi Jinping will meet in Singapore on Saturday in the first meeting of leaders from the two sides since the Chinese civil war ended in 1949.

The leaders of China and Taiwan announced they will meet Saturday for the first time since the end of the Chinese civil war in 1949, a historic yet potentially risky political move in the lead-up to Taiwan's presidential election.

"Any meeting between the leaders of China and Taiwan would be delicate, but the coming Taiwanese elections add to the political risks for both sides," John Ciorciari, assistant professor of public policy at the University of Michigan, told Reuters.

Polls indicate that Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou's ruling Kuomintang party will lose in January to the opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), which historically favors independence from China. By contrast, Mr. Ma has worked to improve relations with China since his election in 2008. 

The meeting between President Ma and Chinese President Xi Jinping is scheduled to take place in Singapore on Saturday. 

The elections – and the meeting – come on the heels of heightened anti-Chinese sentiment in Taiwan, particularly among youth. In 2014, protesters occupied parliament in opposition to a trade deal with China. Controversy also erupted over new history text books that use language that, for example, describes Taiwan as being “recovered by” instead of “given to” China after World War II, The Christian Science Monitor reports. The recent youth protests:

…reflect a growing shift on the island from cultural identification with China to a more Taiwanese identity. They also reflect a new activism by younger generations first seen in Taiwan's "Sunflower movement" in 2014 and more recently in Hong Kong's "Occupy Central" movement that challenged Beijing's rules on elections.

China considers Taiwan a breakaway province, and “has warned that any formal declaration of independence could lead to military intervention,” reports CNN.

The island has been self-ruled since 1949 when Chiang Kai-shek's forces retreated from the mainland, vowing to take it back in the future. Since then, Taiwan has been at odds with Beijing's Communist rulers, particularly during periods of cold-war tensions in the region. In 1971, the United Nations switched its recognition to the People's Republic of China, replacing Taiwan's representation at the world body. 

The fact that President Xi is holding this historic meeting itself shows China is worried, reports the BBC.

[The meeting] is a sign of how concerned China is that the significantly improved ties of recent years could be jeopardised if the pro-independence opposition party's candidate becomes president. Opinion polls show [DPP candidate] Tsai Ing-wen is leading - a big worry for Beijing.

Ms Tsai has said she welcomes dialogue with Chinese leaders, but Beijing has refused to meet her, indicating it does not trust her.

She was a minister in charge of developing policy toward mainland China under the previous administration, which angered Beijing by trying to work towards formal independence.

Ma said the point of the get-together is to “maintain the status quo” with China. His office has emphasized that no agreements would be signed.

The leaders are expected to refer to one another as “mister,” as a way to avoid using titles or honorifics like “president,” a result of neither officially recognizing the other as head of state, The New York Times reports. 

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