BEIJING: The stage is set for a historic handshake between the presidents of Taiwan and China at the weekend with protocol micro-managed to prevent the slightest political gaffe.
The summit on Saturday in Singapore between President Xi Jinping and his counterpart Ma Ying-jeou is the first time leaders of Taiwan and China have met since they split in 1949 at the end of a civil war.
Their handshake will seal a dramatic seven-year rapprochement under Ma that has seen an expansion of trade ties — and a backlash from the island’s China-skeptics.
Although Taiwan is a self-ruling democracy with a fierce sense of independence, China considers it part of its territory to be reunified by force if necessary.
The political mire that characterizes China-Taiwan relations means both sides are on red alert for potential embarrassments on Saturday — from how they address each other to the substance of the talks.
As the leaders do not formally recognize each other’s legitimacy, they will not be addressing each other as “president,” instead using the title “Mister.”
Ma has also emphasized there will be no joint agreement or joint statement, a move analysts say is designed to assuage the nerves of the Taiwanese public.
The two leaders will give separate consecutive press conferences following a brief public address and a closed-door meeting, before sitting down to dinner.
‘Strive for subtlety’
For Ma and Xi, the meeting itself may have to be enough, says J. Michael Cole, a Taipei-based academic with the University of Nottingham’s China Policy Institute.
“Beijing will, or should, strive for subtlety: photo ops, handshakes, and optics,” he said.
“Deals and agreements would risk alienating the public in Taiwan which has become very sensitive to any sign that Beijing is trying to influence their voting decisions,” he added.
Ma’s opponents say the meet is a bid to boost the Beijing-friendly Kuomintang’s chances at Taiwan’s presidential elections in January, as its popularity plummets, partly due to concerns over Chinese influence.
The KMT adheres to a “one China” policy under a tacit agreement with Beijing that allows both sides their own interpretation of the principle.
Taiwan has never formally declared independence from China and would risk military retaliation if it did.
On the other hand the concept of reunification is a highly sensitive topic in Taiwan as anxiety over closer ties grows.
Ma’s polls have plunged as the electorate increasingly sees him as a lame duck president.
“I don’t think he (Ma) could pull off anything dramatic in China. Xi Jinping stands for China, but Ma Ying-jeou, he doesn’t have the mandate to stand for Taiwan,” said Willy Lam, a political analyst at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.
“It’s very unlikely that there will be any agreement or even a meeting of the minds. I think they can only talk about at most economic cooperation,” he said.
Ma’s bids for a meeting with Xi have repeatedly been rejected before.
China has agreed to Saturday’s summit as an attempt to solidify cross-strait stability ahead of a possible KMT election rout and the voting in of a China-skeptic leader, analysts say.
The decision appears to be an attempt to “lock in cross-strait relations toward a course of interaction that’s favorable to Beijing’s grand strategy” of reunification, said Titus Chen of the Institute of China and Asia-Pacific Studies at Taiwan’s National Sun Yat-sen University.
Some also sees it as a move at least partly aimed at drawing attention away from China’s aggressive expansionism in the South China Sea, casting it as peace-maker at a time of simmering tensions.
Beijing’s anger flared after the guided missile destroyer USS Lassen last week sailed close to artificial islands it has built in the disputed South China Sea, construction that has alarmed China’s neighbors.
The US, committed to defending Taiwan in the face of Chinese aggression, has given a cautious welcome to the meeting as a step to reducing tension.
While it will be closely stage-managed and it is unclear what will come out of the meeting, analysts agree it is a landmark.
“Such a get-together will have a profound impact not only on cross-Strait relations and Taiwanese politics, but also the US-China relationship,” said Allen Carlson, associate professor at Cornell University’s government department
“Such a development is tantamount to Nixon going to China in 1972, or Obama opening US relations with Cuba in 2014. It constitutes nothing short of a new chapter in relations across the Taiwan Strait.”