BEIJING – The presidents of China and Taiwan have set a historic first meeting for this weekend that offers a shot at posterity for the former bitter Cold War foes after more than six decades of division, while testing recent years of rapidly warming ties.
The sides on Wednesday announced the talks between Chinese President Xi Jinping and Taiwanese counterpart Ma Ying-jeou on neutral ground in Singapore, the Southeast Asian city-state whose government maintains friendly ties with both. Those would be the first direct discussions between the leaders of China and Taiwan since civil war divided their lands 66 years ago, a highly symbolic move that reflects their quickly improving relations.
Saturday's meeting could be the last chance for Xi to press China's case for closer economic and political ties before Taiwan's January elections for the presidency and legislature.
Already the most powerful Chinese leader in decades, Xi would benefit from a successful outcome to the meeting by appearing to further what China calls the "great goal of national unification."
The meeting is riskier for Ma, whose ruling Nationalist Party is lagging in polls. The elections could serve as an unofficial referendum on Ma's pro-China policies, and his party could be dragged down further by perceptions Ma is pandering to China's ruling Communists to burnish his own legacy and benefit the island's pro-China elite.
A win for the opposition could see a significant curtailing of Ma's pro-China initiatives, something Beijing would be loath to witness.
"This will be tricky politically in Taiwan, as the opposition will obviously use this to charge Ma and the Nationalists with kowtowing to Beijing," said Alan Romberg, East Asia program director with Washington think tank the Stimson Center.
Yet Saturday's meeting could also boost the Nationalists' credentials for driving progress in relations with China and heading off past threats and hostility from Beijing that rattled many Taiwanese. It may also help that the meeting puts Ma, leader of 23 million people, on equal footing with the leader of the world's most populous country and its second-largest economy.
"Ma and presumably the rest of the Nationalists will cast this as demonstrating the benefits of adhering to the 1992 Consensus as a constructive basis for handling cross-strait relations — indeed as the indispensable basis," Romberg said.
The 1992 Consensus refers to an agreement that formed the basis of talks between the two sides, under which both consider Taiwan and the mainland to be one country with separate interpretations according to their own constitutions.
The main pro-independence opposition Democratic Progressive Party has refused to recognize the consensus, calling it meaningless and unrepresentative of popular sentiment on the island.
Formal talks came after Ma, president since 2008, set aside old hostilities to allow lower-level official meetings. Taiwan and China, its top trading partner, have signed 23 deals covering mainly trade, transit and investment.
Ma is likely hoping for even closer economic ties, as well as security assurances from Beijing, which despite warming relations still insists that the two sides must eventually reunite, by force if necessary.
Any concessions Ma extracts from China could help Nationalist presidential candidate Eric Chu in the polls, said Hong Kong Chinese politics expert Willy Lam. Xi, for his part, also hopes a friendly, non-threatening meeting gives the Nationalists a boost, while showing mainland Chinese that he could be the best bet in decades for achieving unification.
Presidents of the two sides have not met since Chiang Kai-shek's Nationalists lost the Chinese civil war to Mao Zedong's Communists and the Nationalists rebased in Taiwan, 160 kilometers (100 miles) from the mainland, in 1949. The two sides have been separately ruled since then, with Taiwan evolving into a freewheeling democracy.
Confirmation of the meeting from Chinese Cabinet's Taiwan Affairs Office came hours after the Taiwanese side announced the meeting earlier Wednesday.
According to the two, Xi and Ma will be meeting as "leaders of the two sides" of the Taiwan Strait, and address each other by the title of "Mr." A banquet will be held after their meeting.
The arrangements avoid the phrases "countries" and "president," in line with Beijing's insistence that Taiwan is not a sovereign nation, but part of China as a single country.
In a statement, the DPP criticized Ma for planning the meeting in secret and said it appeared to be intended to influence elections.
"This once again shows the Ma government's tendency to do things in a black box, violate democracy and evade oversight, and the public will have difficulty accepting this," the statement read.
Ma is stepping down as president next year after his maximum two terms, and the DPP's candidate Tsai Ing-wen is considered the front-runner to replace him.
Beijing has hoped that economic inducements would lead to greater acceptance among Taiwanese of eventual political reunification. A DPP victory could prompt Beijing to reassess its policies and become more hard-line in pressuring Taiwan into a political union.
Ma's government has come under increasing criticism at home for cozying up to China, amid fears Beijing will eventually leverage economic relations to exert more power over the island.
Such sentiments helped the DPP to a landslide victory a year ago in local elections, raising the possibility it might win not only the presidency but also a majority in legislative elections also being held Jan. 16. The Nationalists replaced their presidential candidate Oct. 17, highlighting their disarray.
Given the chances of a Nationalist defeat, China is likely to proceed cautiously to avoid further alienating Taiwanese voters.
Xi warned Taiwan in 2013 against putting off political differences from generation to generation. China has long advocated a Hong Kong-style one-country, two-system form of joint rule, in which Beijing controls Taiwan but the island of 23 million retains control of its political, legal and economic affairs.
That approach has little currency in Taiwan, where most favor the current state of de-facto independence.
Pro-independence demonstrators rallied outside the legislature in Taipei to protest the planned meeting. One banner urged Ma, "Don't come back if you go."
"We will resolutely oppose this," Hung Te-jen said. "Ma is sneaking around to sell off Taiwan."