Leaders of China and Taiwan Meet for the First Time

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Note the lack of flags, which could have signaled that one side acknowledged the legitimacy of the other.Photo: ROSLAN RAHMAN

The leaders of China and Taiwan have met and shaken hands for the first time ever, suggesting a potential diplomatic thaw in the traditionally chilly relationship between the two countries. As the Guardian and New York Times report, in a widely publicized, closely scrutinized meeting on Saturday in Singapore, Chinese president Xi Jinping and Taiwanese president Ma Ying-jeou met and attempted, though imagery and conversation, to jump-start better relations between the two long-time rival countries.

Taiwan, known officially as the Republic of China, was founded by wealthy Chinese nationalists fleeing mainland China after Mao Zedong and the Communist Party took control of the country in the late 1940s. The new country rejected communism, embracing democracy and capitalism and subsequently experiencing rapid grown in the decades since. China has in turn refused to ever accept Taiwan as an independent nation, instead considering the island a renegade Chinese province and continuously working to isolate it. Though there has been an economic relationship between the two countries since China opened up its economy to outsiders, and travel restrictions between the countries were lifted last decade, the political relationship has always been strained and many residents of Taiwan remain distrustful of the Chinese government.

But while the much-photographed handshake and meeting are indeed historic, and both leaders sold the rendezvous as the beginning of a beautiful friendship, it does not seem like any substantive progress was in fact made regarding actual improved relations, and it’s not clear if or when a follow-up meeting will occur. President Xi made it clear that China still considered Taiwan part of its territory. President Ma, who has always advocated closer ties with China but is near the end of his final term in office, has faced significant political opposition within Taiwan to his pro-China stance, and his most likely successor as president is more skeptical toward China overall. Polls in Taiwan indicate that while most support improved relations, the number of Taiwanese residents who favor reunification continues to drop, meaning the people of Taiwan and the government of China are unlikely to agree about Taiwan’s fate. In addition, China’s most prominent Communist Party newspaper has called Saturday’s meeting an “empty ritual.”