China has solemnly vowed to stay neutral in the upcoming elections in Taiwan, the island Beijing considers to be a renegade territory.
But after the past 24 hours, no one believes that anymore.
The dramatic announcement Tuesday night that China's President Xi Jinping will meet with Taiwan's President Ma Ying-jeou on Saturday in Singapore – the first ever meeting between leaders of the two governments – came as a complete surprise.
To both experts and ordinary Taiwanese, it appears that China sees too much at stake to stay on the sidelines of January's presidential and legislative elections, the results of which could reshape the dynamics of bilateral and regional relations. Polls show Mr. Ma's ruling Kuomintang (KMT) party losing out to opposition parties that do not accept that Taiwan is part of China.
Since Ma was first elected as president in 2008, he has sought to meet with China's top leader. Until now, Beijing has declined.
Taiwanese held protests today over the haste with which Mr. Ma apparently accepted the meeting with Mr. Xi, and the lack of any public consultation on the terms and agenda of such a politically fraught event, one expected to be held behind closed doors.
“We don't know if this is going to be good for our relations with China or not,” says Apollo Chen, a senior KMT legislator standing for re-election. “But it makes our party's situation more difficult, including my own.”
Ma's office said Wednesday there would be no signed agreements or joint statements in Singapore. A senior staff member for Ma said the meeting would affirm the expanded cooperation with Beijing that Ma has sought, and it would help ensure bilateral peace as the country prepares for a post-election transition.
The clear presidential front-runner, Tsai Ying-wen of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) said she was "stunned" at the abrupt summit announcement and called it harmful to Taiwan's democracy. Dr. Tsai has not endorsed the “one China” consensus under which the two sides have met during Ma's tenure.
“We want relations across the [Taiwan] Strait to develop in a peaceful and stable direction,” Tsai told a party meeting today. But she warned that "the people will never accept that an outgoing president bargains away Taiwan's future to maximize his personal political legacy or makes promises he cannot be responsible for."
Rival capitals since end of civil war
Beijing has never recognized the legitimacy of Taiwan's elected government, which evolved out of the autocratic rule of the Nationalists (Kuomintang) who fled to China after losing the civil war to the communist forces of Mao Zedong.
In recent years, Taiwanese have grown wary of closer ties with China. Ma's critics say they have not seen the economic benefits that he promised would result, and his poll ratings have fallen.
On Wednesday, candidates and leaders from almost every political party expressed doubts about the motives and purpose of the Ma-Xi meeting. These include the New Power Party, formed earlier this year with support from young activists, which is contesting six legislative seats.
In a street protest outside the national legislature on Thursday, New Power leader Huang Guo-chang angrily questioned Ma's commitment to Taiwan's sovereignty and its democratic process, noting that neither elected officials nor the public were informed in advance.
This fall the KMT has faced mounting internal conflicts that have worsened its election prospects. The party's presidential candidate was replaced at the last-minute with party chairman Eric Chu. Polls predict the KMT is likely to lose the presidency and could also, for the first time, lose its parliamentary majority.
Such an outcome would close the current window of opportunity for Beijing to advance its long-cherished goals of cross-strait integration, with the ultimate aim of annexing or unifying on its terms.
"Beijing is desperately trying to save the work they have done with Ma over the past eight years and wants to reset the relationship with Taiwan," says Parris Chang, a scholar and former opposition party legislator. "But will this meeting really make a difference? I don't think so."