IT WAS a brief encounter—an hour of discussions followed by a low-key dinner—but one of great historical resonance. Not since Mao Zedong’s takeover of China in 1949 had there been any meeting between the leaders of China and the island of Taiwan, to which the defeated government of Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek fled. At a hotel in Singapore, Xi Jinping, China’s president, and his Taiwanese counterpart, Ma Ying-jeou, clearly revelled in the symbolism, grinning and waving as they shook hands before a mass of cameras gathered in a ballroom. But China’s dream of eventual unification with Taiwan is no closer to fulfilment, and its suspicion of the island’s increasingly separate identity is undiminished.
Officials had given only a few days’ notice of the unexpected meeting, which took place on the sidelines of Mr Xi’s long-planned state visit to Singapore. Careful choreography aimed to ensure that both statesmen would be seen as equals. The two emerged into the flash bulbs together, but from opposite sides of the room. They had agreed to refer to each other using only the honorific “Mr”, forgoing titles such as “president”, which would risk conveying legitimacy. And both delegations have reportedly agreed to split the bill for dinner, and for the use of the hotel’s conference rooms.
The seeds of the meeting were some very immediate concerns. Ties between the two countries have warmed immensely during Mr Ma’s premiership. But term limits require him to step down at elections in January, when polls suggest the presidency (and perhaps the legislature) will fall to the opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), whose members lean towards independence and are suspicious of China’s overtures. Mr Ma is presumably not foolish enough to think that kudos from the landmark meeting will give his party, the Kuomintang (KMT), a better chance of holding power. He may instead be thinking of his own political legacy, given that growing domestic opposition to recent cross-strait trade deals has left his and his party’s popularity in tatters. For the KMT, the resonance of the meeting goes back to 1945 when it ruled all of China. In August that year Chiang met Mao for the last time before full-scale civil war erupted. The discussions between Mr Ma and Mr Xi were the first between the two parties’ leaders since then.