SINGAPORE – Many thought it might never happen: The presidents of China and Taiwan — inheritors to the Communist and Nationalist regimes that fought a civil war and remained bitter rivals for decades — coming together as equals for talks.
While it isn't yet clear what the impact will be, or whether and when it will happen again, on a rainy Saturday in Singapore, the possibility of a fundamental shift in relations between the feuding neighbors suddenly seemed possible.
China's Xi Jinping and Taiwan's Ma Ying-jeou didn't produce any concrete achievements, or even issue a joint statement after their hour-long discussions at an upscale hotel.
But no one was really expecting them to. Both men, the scions of senior figures in their respective parties, underscored the importance of their meeting as a sign of how far the two sides of the Taiwan Strait have moved since the days they lobbed shells at each other and resolutely refused to negotiate or compromise.
"We are sitting together today to prevent the historical tragedy from repeating itself, prevent the fruits from peaceful development of cross-Strait ties from being lost again, enable compatriots across the Strait to continue to create a peaceful life, and enable our next generations to share a bright future," Xi said in opening remarks.
Ma, who unlike Xi spoke to reporters after the meeting, emphasized how arduous the road to Singapore had been, and how much work remains to be done.
"Think about it; is there any relationship in the world like the cross-Strait relationship? No. It's extremely complex. There's domestic politics, diplomacy, defense, economics," Ma said.
The meeting was the first between the leaders since China and Taiwan split amid the still unresolved civil war in 1949. Although preparations spread out across two years, it wasn't announced until Wednesday, catching almost everyone by surprise.
Although overwhelmingly symbolic, the meeting wasn't entirely without substance. Ma said he raised a number of sensitive issues, especially Taiwan's desire to escape the fetters of China-imposed diplomatic isolation and its extreme unease over the growing arsenal of missiles located just across the 160-kilometer (100-mile) -wide Taiwan Strait. Xi offered pleasant-sounding but bland responses and made no promises.
The two also discussed setting up a hotline between their Cabinet-level agencies entrusted with overseeing relations, as well as a long-mooted proposal to set up representative offices on each other's territory. Ma again expressed Taiwan's desire to join the China-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. Xi repeated China's promise to consider Taiwan acceding "in an appropriate manner," pointing to China's insistence that Taiwan do so only under a name that implies it is part of China.
Also remarkable was Xi's agreement to hold the meeting on neutral territory and without flags or other trappings of Chinese nationalism. The two even dropped their official titles to refer to each as "Mr. Xi" and "Mr. Ma."
"From the mainland perspective, Xi Jinping's decision to meet with Ma demonstrates that he is willing to take some degree of risk in order to change the dynamics of the relationship," said Mary E. Gallagher, a political scientist who studies China at the University of Michigan. "Xi's move further solidifies his image as a strong and confident leader."
Xi appeared to calculate that he had more to gain by appearing sympathetic to Taiwan, probably out of concern over rising anti-mainland sentiment on the self-governing island. Ma, six months before leaving office, appeared to hope that the meeting would help his legacy despite the considerable political risk for the Nationalists in upcoming elections.
Ma "wants to drive home the point that cooperation with the mainland is possible and that it is better for Taiwan's residents than the alternative," Columbia University China expert Andrew Nathan wrote on the Asia Society blog ChinaFile.
Though opposed by some in Taiwan, the meeting drew huge attention and overwhelmingly favorable response in China and across the Chinese-speaking world, as well as in Washington.
The biggest obstacle to future talks could be Taiwan's ferociously democratic system — new elections for the presidency and legislature are scheduled for January. The main opposition Democratic Progressive Party, which advocates Taiwan's formal independence from China, is favored to win one or both elections and its presidential candidate Tsai Ing-wen has refused to endorse the so-called "92 Consensus," under which China has allowed negotiations between the sides to proceed.
That consensus states that Taiwan and the mainland are part of a single Chinese nation, although each side interprets that according to their own constitutions.
The Chinese side made a particular point of stating that there could be no future meetings between the leaders without the Taiwan side affirming the principle.
"The big question going forward is whether this meeting will change how Taiwanese view the mainland. Will this meeting improve the chance of further rapprochement under the next administration, which is almost surely to be under the DPP?" Gallagher said.
Bodeen has covered Taiwan and China issues for more than 20 years.