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Taiwan and China leaders to hold first meeting since 1949

Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou pictured in Taipei on October 10, 2015.
Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou pictured in Taipei on October 10, 2015. AFP file photo

Chinese President Xi Jinping will hold talks with his Taiwanese counterpart Ma Ying-jeou in Singapore on Saturday in the first such meeting of leaders from the two rivals since the Chinese civil war ended in 1949.

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But the historic meeting has met with strong opposition by opponents of the Taiwan’s governing, China-friendly, Kuomintang (KMT) party, who worry about Beijing's growing influence on the island and see the talks as an attempt to boost the party’s chances in Taiwan's presidential elections in January.

Ma’s office said in a statement that the purpose of his trip was to “consolidate cross-strait peace and maintain the status quo”.

Ma would not sign any agreements, nor issue any joint statements with China, it added.

Zhang Zhijun, head of China’s Taiwan Affairs Office, said the two leaders will “exchange views on promoting the peaceful development of cross-Taiwan Straits relations”, according to a statement carried by the official Xinhua news agency.

“This is a pragmatic arrangement made in accordance with the one-China principle under the situation where the political dispute across the Taiwan Strait has yet to be resolved,” Zhang added.

Ma, who is set to step down next year due to term limits, has made improving economic links with China a key policy since he took office in 2008. He has signed a series of landmark business and tourism deals, though there has been no progress in resolving their political differences.

Taiwan opposition upset

Taiwan’s main opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DDP) slammed what it said was a lack of transparency about the meeting and said that key parliamentary leaders had not been informed.

Meeting 'not totally unexpected'

“Last night, suddenly there was this news of the Ma-Xi meeting. I believe people across the country, like me, felt very surprised,” DDP leader Tsai Ing-wen said in prepared remarks to reporters and top party members.

“A meeting of the leaders of the two sides across the strait is a great event, involving the dignity and national interests of Taiwan. But to let the people know in such a hasty and chaotic manner is damaging to Taiwan’s democracy.”

Tsai is favourite to win the poll in January. She has said she will “maintain the status quo” but has not elaborated on how she plans to do so.

Experts said China could be trying to influence the election, adding Ma was taking a risk in meeting Xi with the poll only 10 weeks away. The move could also backfire on Xi if there was widespread opposition in Taiwan to the meeting, they said.

China could be trying to show that ties will improve if Taiwan continues to be ruled by Ma’s pro-China Nationalist Party, or Kuomintang (KMT), said Aaron Friedberg, professor at the Woodrow Wilson School at Princeton University. “It’s conceivable that they had something like that in mind.

They may be rewarding President Ma for policies that he has pursued, that in general have tended to favour closer relations between Taiwan and the mainland,” Friedberg said.

On Wednesday, small groups of protesters gathered outside Taiwan’s parliament where the cabinet would meet with leaders of parliament and the island’s political parties to discuss the trip.

Ma will hold a news briefing on Thursday, the presidential office said.

No formal independence

Beijing still considers Taiwan as part of its territory, even though it has been governed separately since Nationalist leader Chiang Kai-shek and his KMT forces fled to the island after losing the civil war to Mao Zedong's communists.

Since then the island nation has been self-ruled, but has never declared formal independence.

Previous Chinese attempts to influence Taiwan’s elections have backfired.

In 1996, then-Chinese president Jiang Zemin ordered live fire missile tests and war games in the seas around Taiwan to try and intimidate voters not to back Lee Teng-hui, who China believed was moving the island closer to formal independence.

The crisis brought the two sides to the verge of conflict and prompted the United States to sail a carrier task force through the Taiwan Strait in a warning to Beijing. Lee won the election by a landslide.

(FRANCE 24 with REUTERS, AFP)
 

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