Taiwan President Ma to raise island's diplomatic isolation with China's Xi at historic meeting

Taiwan's president said Thursday he hopes this weekend's historic meeting with his Chinese counterpart will help ease the Beijing-imposed diplomatic isolation of the island, which is now officially recognized by just 22 countries.

President Ma Ying-jeou also told reporters at a news conference that his meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping is not intended to affect the outcome of Taiwan's January elections. Ma's ruling Nationalist Party has been trailing in polls.

"The object of our decision is not the next election," Ma said. "It's the happiness of the next generation."

Saturday's meeting in Singapore is the first between the leaders of the two formerly bitter Cold War foes since Taiwan split from mainland China during the Chinese civil war in 1949. It's being hailed as a historical watershed, though both sides have said there will be no formal agreements signed or joint statements issued.

The highly sensitive issue of Taiwan's marginalization in international society was one of the few concrete discussion points Ma raised during the hour-long news conference at the Presidential Office Building in the heart of the capital, Taipei.

"Taiwan has for quite some time encountered no-little trouble participating in international events and we frequently hear from the public about this, especially nongovernmental organizations," Ma said.

"Therefore, at this Ma-Xi meeting, we will raise the issue and hope to come to some agreement about it and allow Taiwan to have an expanded international space."

China refuses to acknowledge the island as anything other than a breakaway province, and pressure from Beijing keeps Taiwan out of the United Nations and other major multinational organizations.

Most of the world's countries recognized Taiwan in the 1960s, but few do now. The U.S., though still a key supporter, severed official ties in 1979. Taiwan is allowed to compete at the Olympics, but under the name "Chinese Taipei."

Ma said there were no plans Saturday to discuss the situation in the South China Sea, where Taiwan and China have overlapping claims, in competition with four other countries. Tensions have been rising over China's increasingly robust assertions of its claims, although Taiwan has largely remained aloof from the matter.

Taiwan's main opposition Democratic Progressive Party and others on the island have questioned Ma's motivations and the timing of the meeting. The Nationalists are forecast to lose the presidency in the Jan. 16 to the DPP and are struggling to hang on to their majority in the legislature. A successful meeting could give the Nationalists a boost, but could also cost them further support if voters see Ma as pandering to Beijing.

Ma said such questioning overlooked the meeting's historic significance.

"This Ma-Xi meeting is a positive thing for Taiwan, for the mainland and for the entire world. You can see that in the response from all sectors," Ma said.

Ma said he also hoped the meeting would set a precedent for "regularizing" contacts between leaders of China and Taiwan, who share robust economic links despite their lengthy political alienation.

"In future, on this basis, whoever is elected the president of the Republic of China can continue to advance cross-strait relations. That was our consideration," Ma said, using Taiwan's formal name.

Ma also pledged to release related documents and provide maximum transparency to allay suspicions about possible secret deals made at the meeting.

Although the meeting was only announced in the early hours of Wednesday morning, Ma said it had been in the works for about two years. Ma said advance notice had also been provided to the U.S.

Because the sides had ruled out meeting in China or at multilateral forums, a neutral third-party space was the only possible venue. Singapore was the scene of breakthrough talks between semi-official negotiators from the two sides in 1992 and continues to maintain close relations with both.