China-Taiwan talks to further normalise relations

Taiwanese leader Ma Ying-jeou denies aim of meeting is to improve his election chances

China's president Xi Jinping will meet Ma Ying-jeou, head of self-ruled Taiwan, for a historic meeting on Saturday which, Mr Ma insisted, is about normalising ties between the two rivals and not influencing elections in two months' time.

The meeting in Singapore is one of the great protocol challenges – both Taiwan and China claim to be the "real China" – 66 years after the civil war that divided them. They will address each other as "mister", probably shake hands, but neither side can risk giving legitimacy to the other, so there will be no joint press briefing.

Mr Ma's KMT or Kuomintang party is under political pressure and the opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), led by the presidential election frontrunner, Tsai Ing-wen, is in the driving seat for next month's elections.

After defeat by the Communists during the civil war in 1949, the Nationalist Chinese government under Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek fled to Taiwan, and since then relations between China and Taiwan have been one of the biggest flashpoints in the region.


China claims sovereignty over Taiwan, but ties have improved since Mr Ma took office as president in 2008. The US, a long-term ally of Taiwan, has pledged to support Taiwan if China ever threatens the island.

‘One-China’ principle

At the heart of the meeting will be the “One-China” principle, whereby both China and Taiwan acknowledge being part of China, but disagree about the interpretation of what that means.

“The 23 agreements signed over the past seven years have brought about the most stable and peaceful period in cross-strait relations in 66 years, and the task now is to further reduce ill will, stay on the right track, expand exchanges, and deepen co-operation,” Mr Ma said in a statement.

China and Taiwan have become closer in recent years, with the introduction of direct flights, a host of trade deals and a tourism boom.

"Such a development is tantamount to [President Richard] 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," said Allen Carlson, associate professor at Cornell University's government department.

US military exercises

He wondered if Mr Xi was making such a move to appease the local audience angry about the US liberty of performing navigation exercises in the South China Sea last week.

"Is he attempting to signal to Washington China's resolve to resist such measures? Or – on the contrary – is this an attempt to show a more pacific face following a period of apparent assertiveness within the region?" said Mr Carlson.

“There is a great deal at stake within this upcoming meeting for Beijing, Taipei and Washington, as such a get together will have a profound impact not only on cross-strait relations and Taiwanese politics, but also the US-China relationship.”

Mr Ma said the US had responded positively to the news of the talks and said over 70 per cent of those polled last month by Taiwan’s top policymaking body on the meeting had also approved.

Clifford Coonan

Clifford Coonan

Clifford Coonan, an Irish Times contributor, spent 15 years reporting from Beijing