In a first, Taiwan’s President Ma Ying-jeou will meet with Chinese President Xi Jinping on November 7, according to Taiwan’s Central New Agency. Both leaders will travel to Singapore for the meeting. Ma is expected to publicly explain the details of the trip in a press briefing on November 5. The Mainland Affairs Council will also hold a press conference November 4 to discuss the trip.
It’s a huge breakthrough for cross-strait relations: the leaders of the Republic of China (Taiwan) and the People’s Republic of China haven’t met since the PRC was founded in 1949. The PRC in particular has been wary about having such a meeting, worrying that it would convey legitimacy on Taiwan’s separate system of government. An official meeting between Xi and Ma as presidents is out of the question from Beijing’s point of view – meanwhile, Taiwanese don’t want to see a meeting under an alternative format, for fear that would undermine their president’s international status. It’s not yet clear what formula Xi and Ma will use when they do meet together, something that will need to be clarified at Ma’s upcoming press conference.
Taiwan previously pushed hard for a Ma-Xi meeting at the 2014 APEC summit, which was held in Beijing. The PRC wasn’t willing to host Ma, however; a spokesperson for the Taiwan Affairs Office said that an international summit wasn’t the right venue for such a meeting.
Given that, it’s interesting that Ma and Xi will indeed meet in a third country. Despite a lack of diplomatic ties between Taiwan and Singapore, Ma has already visited the city-state once this year, to pay his respects on the passing of political giant Lee Kuan Yew. Singapore was able to handle hosting Ma without crossing Beijing’s red line of violating the “one China” policy – which may be why the country will host the long-awaited meeting between the leaders of China and Taiwan.
Though the meeting will be historic, Ma will have to sell politicians and the general public in Taiwan on the idea by assuring them the meeting will take place on terms acceptable to Taiwan. CNA, citing sources in the Presidential Office, said that Tseng Yung-chuan, the secretary-general of the Presidential Office, will be briefing legislative leaders (including Speaker Wang Jin-pyng, who is also a member of Ma’s party, the Kuomintang (KMT), but is seen as a political rival) on the visit in the next few days.
Taiwanese government sources were also careful to specify that Ma will not sign any agreements or issue any joint statements with Xi. “[T]he two leaders will exchange views on consolidating cross-strait peace and maintaining the status quo,” according to CNA. With many on Taiwan rethinking the pace at which economic ties with the mainland have developed in the past eight years, Ma wants to be careful not to seem like he is moving forward on the thorny topic of political relations with Beijing.
The meeting will come just under two months before Taiwanese head to the polls for presidential and legislative elections. Currently, the opposition candidate Tsai Ing-wen, chair of the Democratic Progressive Party, is leading in the polls, even after the ruling KMT switched candidates (New Taipei Mayor Eric Chu) in a bid to make the race more competitive. The DPP is already questioning the timing of the visit, according to CNA.