Historic meeting of China and Taiwan leaders met with suspicion due to timing

Xi Jinping and Ma Ying-jeou's dinner in Singapore is first meeting of two countries' presidents since 1949, and comes just two months before Taiwanese elections

Ma Ying-jeou and Xi Jinping (PresidenciaRD/Flickr & Antilong/Wikimedia Commons)

A historic meeting between the presidents of China and Taiwan is to take place in Singapore on Saturday, but the surprise announcement has left some observers to question the motives behind it.

Xi Jinping and Ma Ying-jeou will dine together and address each other as "mister", according to China state news agency Xinhua.

The meeting is the first between the two countries’ leaders in over 60 years. China continues to disregard Taiwan's independence and believes it should be reunified with the Chinese mainland.

Zhang Zhijun, a Chinese government official in charge of handling Taiwanese matters, said the leaders "will exchange views on promoting peaceful development of cross-Strait relations, discuss major issues on deepening cross-Strait cooperation in various areas and improving the people's welfare".

However, the meeting has come completely out of the blue for many in both countries, and in Taiwan there is suspicion around its timing, given elections are to be held on 16 January.

Ma’s tenure has been dogged by condemnation for being far too cosy with Beijing, and locals see the apparently hastily-arranged meeting as a stark example of it.

Significantly, due to a swell of recent anti-China sentiment in Taiwan, Ma’s ruling Nationalist party (KMT) is slated to lose to the Democratic Progressive party led by Tsai Ing-Wen.

She is poised to become Taiwan’s first female leader. Reacting to news of the meeting, Tsai said: "I believe people across the country, like me, felt very surprise.

"A meeting of the leaders of the two sides across the strait is a great event, involving the dignity and national interests of Taiwan. But to let the people know in such a hasty and chaotic manner is damaging to Taiwan’s democracy."

Critics say Xi is using the landmark meeting to exert Chinese influence on Taiwan’s election process by boosting both the KMT’s and Ma’s public image.

Tarun Deo, managing director at Golin for Singapore and Southeast Asia, said the meeting is an interesting move because on the face of it there seems to be very little apparent upside for both leaders, at least in the short-term regarding the elections.

However, in the long-term, from a public image and political perspective it could represent a change in Xi’s strategy, Deo told PRWeek Asia.

He has strong credentials as a "no nonsense leader" that is "not shy of using an ‘iron fist’ so to speak", with his actions in stamping out corruption and the South China Sea dispute examples of this.

"Having said that, both Hong Kong and Taiwan are a different kettle of fish and I don’t believe can be solved in the same way and this is where Mr Xi’s strategy is evolving. The standoff in HK last year with the true suffrage vote did not go to plan and that issue is still drifting and hangs in the balance," Deo said.

"Taiwan seems to be heading in the same way too and if Ms Tsai does win, will be a setback of similar proportions. This will certainly be one of the biggest tests of Mr Xi’s ability to see how he can influence, impact and manage this 66-year-old issue. Whether he will be able to display and deploy a deft touch is anyone’s guess at the moment. But this meeting is a first step for sure."

Jean-Michel Dumont, chairman of Ruder Finn Asia, said dialogue is key to all relationship building, with Taiwan and China no exception. But the meeting is sure to be "a very interesting exercise in diplomacy and communication" given its timing.

"On-site, every word and movement is likely to be very well choreographed on both sides, beginning from the titles used - reciprocal ‘mister’ instead of ‘president’ - to the photo opportunities or the length of time spent together," he told PRWeek Asia.

Moreover, media coverage of the event in each country will be vastly different, Dumont added, with the greater diversity of opinion being seen in Taiwan.

"Each side of the political spectrum will take diametrically different views of whatever is spoken - or not. Having said this, Xi Jinping has proven over the last few trips that he has strong diplomatic skills and is able to navigate tricky situations, so we could see an outcome proportionate to the importance of this unprecedented meeting."

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