THE presidents of China and Taiwan reached across decades of Cold War-era estrangement and rivalry to exchange a historic handshake and warm words in the first summit since the two sides’ traumatic 1949 split.
China’s Xi Jinping and Taiwan’s Ma Ying-jeou shook hands for more than a minute and smiled for a mass of reporters before their talks in Singapore in scenes considered unthinkable until recently.
They later sat down across a table from each other, with Mr Xi praising the event as opening a “historic chapter in our relations” and repeating China’s oft-expressed desire for eventual reunification.
“We are brothers connected by flesh even if our bones are broken. We are a family whose blood is thicker than water,” Mr Xi said.
“The development of cross-strait relations over the past 66 years shows that no matter what kind of winds and rains are experienced by compatriots on the two sides, no matter how long divisions last there is no power that can separate us.”
Despite the apparent warmth, the hour-long meeting’s lasting significance remains to be seen. No agreements were announced between two sides that still refuse to formally recognise each other’s legitimacy.
But the encounter is undeniably historic: the previous occasion was in 1945, when Communist revolutionary leader Mao Zedong met with China’s nationalist President Chiang Kai-shek in a failed reconciliation attempt.
We feel like old friends ... Chinese President Xi Jinping (R) and Taiwan President Ma Ying-jeou wave to journalists before their meeting at Shangrila hotel in Singapore. Picture: AFPSource:AFP
The eventual Communist takeover forced Chiang’s armies and about two million followers to flee to Taiwan, then a backwater island province, leaving a national rupture that has preoccupied both sides ever since.
“Even though this is the first meeting, we feel like old friends,” Mr Ma told Mr Xi, in the unexpectedly cordial encounter.
“Behind us is history stretching for 60 years. Now before our eyes there are fruits of conciliation instead of confrontation.”
Mr Ma later told reporters he proposed the establishment of a hotline between to the two sides and that Mr Xi responded positively.
He also raised issues sensitive to Taiwan’s people, including the arsenal of Chinese missiles aimed at Taiwan, and China’s policy of marginalising the island diplomatically.
“We hope these things do not continue,” said Mr Ma, who told Mr Xi that both sides should exercise “mutual respect.”
Mr Xi did not address reporters, leaving that to a lower-ranking official. Mr Ma has expressed hope the meeting could be a step toward normalising cross-strait relations, but no further plans for closer contact emerged.
Coming together ... Chinese President Xi Jinping (R) shakes hands with Taiwan President Ma Ying-jeou. Picture: AFPSource:AFP
Analysts said there is no guarantee any glow will last, especially with Mr Ma out of office soon, and his ruling party expected to lose in January polls to an opposition that distrusts China.
“This meeting will remain a historic moment but everything will depend on the result of the elections in Taiwan,” said Jean-Pierre Cabestan of Hong Kong Baptist University.
“Xi’s very pro-reunification language ... risks alarming more than one person on the island.” Though politically divided for decades, business and investment ties have flowered.
Since taking office in 2008, Mr Ma’s Beijing-friendly policies have borne new fruit, including a boom in Chinese visitors to the island, the opening of flight routes, more than 20 trade agreements — and Saturday’s summit.
But many in Taiwan, a rambunctious democracy, are deeply uneasy at drawing too close to the Communist-ruled mainland orbit, and reunification remains a distant prospect.
Hundreds of opponents of the summit massed outside Mr Ma’s office in Taipei on Saturday, condemning the meeting and Mr Xi’s “family” comments.
There were also overnight demonstrations at Taiwan’s parliament building, and 27 people were arrested as protesters scuffled with police and tried to burn images of the two leaders at the capital’s airport as Mr Ma departed.
Will handshake change anything ... Chinese President Xi Jinping (R) shakes hands with Taiwan President Ma Ying-jeou. Picture: AFPSource:AFP
The lingering tensions were in plain view at the summit, where the leaders addressed each other as “mister” rather than “president” — which would legitimise their governments.
Beijing sees Taiwan as a wayward province and this disdain surfaced in China’s coverage of the event.
After Mr Xi finished addressing Mr Ma at the meeting’s opening, Chinese state broadcaster CCTV cut away to a studio discussion as video of Mr Ma speaking rolled, but with no sound.
Opponents at home accuse Mr Ma, who leaves office soon, of using the summit to boost his ruling Kuomintang’s (KMT) flagging chances at the polls.
Some analysts feel China also finally granted the meeting, long sought by Mr Ma, to help boost the KMT, which Beijing favours over the more independence-minded opposition.
But they warn the strategy could backfire with anxious Taiwanese voters if China is seen meddling in the election.
Zhu Songling, head of Beijing Union University’s Taiwan Research Institute, said political opposition remains the “greatest obstacle” to closer relations.
“I think ice doesn’t form in a day, and melting it is also not something that can be done in a day. You have to do it bit by bit, but where there’s a will there’s a way,” he said.