China, Taiwan leaders in landmark summit

  • 08/11/2015
Chinese President Xi Jinping and Taiwan's President Ma Ying-jeou (L) wave to the media during a summit in Singapore (Reuters)
Chinese President Xi Jinping and Taiwan's President Ma Ying-jeou (L) wave to the media during a summit in Singapore (Reuters)

By Tom Hancock

The presidents of China and Taiwan have reached across decades of Cold War-era estrangement and rivalry to exchange a historic handshake and warm words in the first summit since the two sides' traumatic 1949 split.

China's Xi Jinping and Taiwan's Ma Ying-jeou shook hands for more than a minute and smiled for a mass of reporters before their talks in Singapore in scenes considered unthinkable until recently.

They later sat down across a table from each other, with Xi praising the event as opening a "historic chapter in our relations" and repeating China's oft-expressed desire for eventual reunification.

"We are brothers connected by flesh even if our bones are broken. We are a family whose blood is thicker than water," Xi said.

He added that "no matter what kind of winds and rains are experienced by compatriots on the two sides, no matter how long divisions last, there is no power that can separate us."

No agreements were announced between two sides that still refuse to formally recognise each other's legitimacy and Ma's moves face significant opposition at home.

"Behind us there is more than six decades of cross-strait separation. Now before our eyes are the common fruits of the policy of replacing opposition with dialogue," Ma told Xi, in the unexpectedly cordial encounter.

Ma later told reporters he proposed the establishment of a hotline between to the two sides and that Xi responded positively.

He also raised issues sensitive to Taiwan's people, including the arsenal of Chinese missiles aimed at Taiwan, and China's policy of marginalising the island diplomatically.

"We hope these things do not continue," said Ma, calling for "mutual respect."

Xi did not address reporters, leaving that to a lower-ranking official.

Ma has expressed hope the meeting could be a step toward normalising cross-strait relations.

Analysts said there is no guarantee any glow will last, especially with Ma out of office soon, and his ruling party expected to lose in January polls to an opposition that distrusts China.

Since taking office in 2008, Ma's Beijing-friendly policies have borne new fruit, including a boom in Chinese visitors to the island, the opening of flight routes, more than 20 trade agreements - and Saturday's summit.

But many in Taiwan, a rambunctious democracy, are deeply uneasy at drawing too close to the Communist-ruled mainland orbit, and reunification remains a distant prospect.

"After watching the Ma-Xi meeting this afternoon on TV, I believe most Taiwanese people, like me, feel very disappointed," the presidential candidate of the opposition Democratic People's Party, Tsai Ing-wen, said in a statement.

Hundreds of opponents of the summit massed outside Ma's office in Taipei Saturday (local time), condemning the meeting and Xi's "family" comments.

There were also overnight demonstrations at Taiwan's Parliament building, and 27 people were arrested as protesters scuffled with police at the capital's airport as Ma departed.

Lingering cross-strait tensions were in plain view at the summit, where the leaders addressed each other as "mister" rather than "president" - which would have legitimised their governments.

Beijing sees Taiwan as a wayward province and this disdain surfaced in China's coverage of the event.

After Xi finished addressing Ma at the meeting's opening, Chinese state broadcaster CCTV cut away to a studio discussion as video of Ma speaking rolled, but with no sound.