Singapore (AsiaNews) – The President of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) Xi Jinping and the President of the Republic of China (ROC, aka Taiwan) Ma Ying-jeou began their historic meeting with an 80-second handshake, broadcast on mainland TV, then held talks behind closed doors. The meeting took place today in neutral territory on the sidelines of a state visit by Mr Xi to Singapore.
Despite fears in Taiwan, “The meeting had a very friendly atmosphere. It was very positive. I found Xi to be very pragmatic, flexible and frank when discussing issues,” said Mr Ma Ying-jeou, who is also head of Taiwan’s ruling Kuomintang (Nationalist) Party.
At a press conference after the meeting, the Taiwanese leader spoke about the 1992 consensus*, “Both sides uphold the ‘One China’ principle, but we each have a different interpretation of it. Our side does not use expressions like ‘two Chinas’ or ‘one China, one Taiwan’ or ‘Taiwan independence’, because our Constitution does not allow that.”
Since the end of the civil war in 1949, mainland China and Taiwan have been under separate governments. For the PRC, the island is a breakaway province. For the ROC, Taiwan** is a separate state.
However, since Ma Ying-jeou was elected in 2008, the gap between the two sides has narrowed. Trade and tourism between them have been encouraged. At the same time, Taiwanese authorities have not raised the possibility of formal secession from China.
On the issue of China's missiles, Ma said, “I mentioned that the public is worried about the mainland’s military deployment against Taiwan, including its military bases and missiles. [Xi] noted that these deployments are not aimed at Taiwan.”
This was the first time that leaders from the two sides discussed the issue. “At least I brought it up,” Ma said, “and I told him the Taiwan public has such concerns, and that I hope he can pay close attention to this matter.”
Ma described the talks as "positive and friendly". Xi told the Taiwanese leader, "We are one family." Afterwards, the two attended a roundtable banquet dinner. Ma brought some 20-year-old sorghum (a Chinese liquor), as well as eight jars of Matsu (another liqueur).
Due to the linguistic minefield of who is president, Xi and Ma diplomatically called each other “xiansheng” or “mister”.
Notwithstanding its impact on cross-strait relations, now the road is clear for leaders from both sides of the Straight of Taiwan to talk directly. This is expected to have repercussions in Taiwan where an election campaign is underway.
For some analysts, the Xi-Ma tête-à-tête weakens the Kuomintang’s main adversary, the Democratic Progressive party (DPP) and its presidential candidate Tsai Ing-wen, in next January’s election.
In previous Taiwanese elections, including that of 2008, Beijing engaged in sable rattling, “threatening to use missiles in order to swing the island’s voters”. However, this had the opposite effect, helping the DPP win power. This time around, mainland China is helping the Kuomintang’s campaign in a peaceful way. “Whether it will succeed or not, only time will tell.”
At the same time, for Xi, the meeting offers some domestic benefits, because it forces the military (which is still full of friends of former President Jiang Zemin) not to use threats of war against its erstwhile enemy to demand greater defence budgets.
* Under the One-China policy, China includes the mainland, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Macau. In 1992, the PRC and the ROC reached a consensus, the ‘1992 Consensus’, on the principle of a single sovereign Chinese state, but disagree as to which of the two is the legitimate government of this state.
** The island of Taiwan was also known as the island of Formosa, after Portuguese mariners named it ilha formosa, beautiful island, in their language.