By Faith Hung and J.R. Wu
Taiwan President Ma Ying-jeou said on Thursday his upcoming meeting with President Xi Jinping was about further normalising ties with China and had nothing to do with trying to revive his party’s fortunes ahead of the island’s elections in January.
The talks in Singapore on Saturday, the first such meeting between the two political rivals since the Chinese civil war ended in 1949, would be transparent, with no private promises made, Ma told a lengthy news conference in Taipei.
His discussions with Xi could help reduce hostilities in the short term, Ma said, adding he hoped future leaders of Taiwan would be able to hold such meetings.
“This meeting is for the Republic of China’s (Taiwan’s)future, the future of cross-strait ties,” Ma said in his first public remarks since the surprise announcement of the meeting at midnight on Tuesday.
“We will explain the actual situation to Mr Xi, particularly tell them about Taiwan’s status so they can better understand and take in full consideration when they formulate Taiwan, cross-strait policies.
“This is not about an election, but is based on the consideration of the happiness of the next generation.”
Communist China deems Taiwan a breakaway province to be taken back, by force if necessary, particularly if it makes moves towards formal independence.
The meeting coincides with rising anti-China sentiment in Taiwan ahead of the presidential and parliamentary polls in January that Ma’s pro-China Kuomintang (KMT) is likely to lose to the opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), which traditionally favours independence from China.
Ma, who steps down next year due to term limits, has made improving economic links with China a key policy since he took office in 2008. He has signed landmark business and tourism deals, though there has been no progress in resolving their political differences.
“If the DPP returns to power next year, ties across the Taiwan Strait will likely deteriorate,” Eric Chu, the KMT’s presidential candidate, who started his own campaigning only three weeks ago, told reporters.
The Communists and KMT both agree there is “one China” but agree to disagree on the interpretation. Taiwan has been self-ruled since Chiang Kai-shek’s KMT fled to the island following their defeat by Mao Zedong’s Communists at the end of the Chinese civil war.
Chu, who met Xi in May after he succeeded Ma as KMT party chief, said he told the Chinese leader at the time that under the basis of such “one China” both sides can “continue to cooperate and reach win-win”.
Ma said he would bring up with Xi the issue of Taiwan’s difficulties in participating in multilateral activities, to try to reach an understanding to give Taiwan more “international space”.
China says it alone has the right to represent Taiwan internationally, although it has made exceptions for membership of some bodies, such as the World Trade Organisation, so long as the island is identified as “Chinese Taipei”.
Ma added that the issue of the disputed South China Sea was not a topic for discussion with Xi. Both China and Taiwan have claims to most of the waterway, although Taipei has traditionally kept a low profile in the dispute.
Asked for his impression of Xi, Ma said: “I have not met him yet, so I don’t have a first impression of him. Once I do, I will tell you.”
The DPP has asked why the announcement of the Singapore meeting had come out of the blue and said the timing was suspect, with elections 10 weeks away.
The Global Times, an influential tabloid published by the Chinese Communist Party’s official People’s Daily, said in an editorial that the DPP should be aware the “whole world” was supporting the meeting, including Washington.
“They are displaying jiggery-pokery from a small circle. Such extremism is bound to be stigmatised,” it said.
Political experts said China could be trying to shape the result of the elections by signalling that ties would continue to improve if the KMT remained in power in Taiwan.
Some said that could backfire given increasing anti-China protests in Taiwan, especially among the young.
In what was seen as a backlash against creeping dependence on China, the KMT was trounced in local elections last year.
America’s top diplomat for Asia said on Wednesday it was hard to see which Taiwan political party would benefit most in the elections from the meeting.
But Daniel Russel, the U.S. assistant secretary of state for East Asia, said he hoped the meeting would continue the positive momentum in China-Taiwan ties seen in the past several years.
Ma said Washington had been informed of the meeting ahead of time.
Sorting out protocol is proving tricky.
A Taiwan official said Ma and Xi would split the bill when they have dinner. China’s Taiwan Affairs Office said they would address each other as “mister”, presumably to avoid calling each other “Mr. President”, as neither officially recognises the other as head of state.