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BEIJING – The presidents of China and Taiwan will meet this weekend for the first time since civil war divided their lands 66 years ago, their governments said Wednesday, a highly symbolic move that reflects quickly improving relations between the formerly bitter Cold War foes.
The meeting Saturday in Singapore between Chinese President Xi Jinping and his Taiwanese counterpart, Ma Ying-jeou, could be China's last chance to press its case for closer economic and political ties before Taiwan elections in January that may put the brakes on Ma's pro-China initiatives.
Ma's ruling Nationalists have been lagging in polls for the presidential and legislative elections. Saturday's meeting could boost their credentials for driving progress in relations with China, but also carries the risk of appearing too close to Beijing, further damaging their chances with voters wary of the mainland's government.
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. Communist Party-ruled China insists that the two sides eventually reunite, by force if necessary.
Confirmation of the meeting from Chinese Cabinet's Taiwan Affairs Office came hours after the Taiwanese side announced the meeting earlier Wednesday.
Xi and Ma would be meeting in their capacity as "leaders of the two sides" of the Taiwan Strait, office director Zhang Zhijun was quoted as saying in a news release posted on the office's website. They would address each other by the title of "Mr." and attend a banquet after their meeting, the office said.
"This is a pragmatic arrangement under the situation of the irresolution of cross-strait political differences on the basis of the one-China principle," Zhang said.
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. However, they give the two leaders equal status, a concession that could blunt criticism from Taiwan's pro-independence opposition, which accuses the Nationalists of pandering to China's ruling Communists.
The two sides never talked formally until Ma, president since 2008, set aside old hostilities to allow lower-level official meetings. China and Taiwan have signed 23 deals covering mainly trade, transit and investment, binding Taiwan closer to its top trading partner and the world's second-largest economy.
Taiwanese presidential spokesman Charles Chen said in a statement Wednesday that the two would exchange ideas about relations, but would not sign any deals.
The choice of Singapore as venue is significant. The Southeast Asian city-state with an ethnic Chinese majority population has strong relations with both Taiwan and China and is seen as neutral ground.
Singapore hosted breakthrough talks between unofficial Taiwanese and Chinese negotiators in 1992 that established a formula whereby they acknowledge that there is only one China, of which Taiwan is a part, but differ on the exact interpretation.
Although Beijing insists on the so-called "1992 consensus" as the basis for talks, Taiwan's main opposition Democratic Progressive Party has refused to embrace it, calling it meaningless and unrepresentative of popular sentiment on the island.
In a statement, the DPP criticized Ma for planning the meeting in secret and said it appeared to be directly targeted at influencing the 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.
The statement from Chen, Ma's spokesman, said the two presidents will meet to "solidify Taiwan-mainland relations and keep the status quo across the Taiwan Strait."
"To hold a meeting across the Taiwan Strait is the consistent goal of leaders on both sides," Chen said. "President Ma recently has repeated many times that 'at the right time and on the right occasion and in the right capacity' he would not rule out a meeting."
Taiwanese officials planned to hold a news conference about the Singapore meeting later Wednesday, and Ma planned to hold one on Thursday.
In Washington, White House spokesman Josh Earnest said the U.S. would welcome steps taken on both sides of the Taiwan Strait to try to reduce tensions and improve relations, but added, "we'll have to see what actually comes out of the meeting."
Ma is likely hoping for some reassurance from Xi over the use of force and closer economic ties that 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.
Sean King, senior vice president with the consultancy Park Strategies in New York and a frequent commentator on Asian affairs, doubted the meeting would help Taiwan's ruling party stay in power.
"This meeting will only hurt the Nationalists at home, as it will cause them to even more be seen as Beijing's preferred Taiwan party," King said. "This could be the mainland's last chance to liaise with the Nationalist Party, while it's in power, for years to come."
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."
Jennings reported from Taipei. Associated Press writers Ian Mader in Beijing and Matthew Pennington in Washington contributed to this report.