WHEN XI JINPING and Ma Ying-jeou meet in a hotel in Singapore for 20 minutes on Saturday, the diplomatic sensitivities require both men to address each other plainly.
Neither man will formally acknowledge the other’s official title at what will be the first meeting between the presidents of China and Taiwan ever and the first between the leader of the Communist Party and the Kuomintang (KMT) since Mao Zedong, at Washington’s prompting, reluctantly met Chiang Kai-shek in 1945 to try to resolve the civil war they had been fighting for 20 years.
Were they to be speaking in English, they would address each other as Mr Xi and Mr Ma.
Their encounter will be a landmark occasion, but its significance lies in the fact that it is taking place at all, not in what might be said or achieved, which is likely little. There will be no agreements signed and no joint statement afterwards. Indeed, the two men will hold separate press conferences.
That said, the meeting is a bigger gamble for Xi than Ma as he is injecting himself into Taiwanese domestic politics. Ma has to step down next year after completing two terms as president during which he has pushed for closer ties across the Straits of Taiwan. Eric Chu, the Kuomintang (KMT) candidate in January 16’s election of his successor, is trailing the pro-independence opposition Democratic Progressive Party’s candidate, Tsai Ing-wen, who is not trusted in Beijing.
The KMT dumped its original candidate, the unpopular Hung Hsiu-chu, barely three months ago in an effort to close the gap with Tsai and Xi will hope his meeting with Ma will boost Chu’s efforts.
The risk is that the opposite happens if Taiwanese voters, who handed the KMT a punishing defeat in last year’s local elections, perceive the meeting as an unwarranted meddling in domestic affairs.
Regardless of the electoral impacts, it looks to this Bystander’s eye that the closer integration of Taiwan and the mainland will slow whichever candidate wins the presidency. Tsai is campaigning to reverse Ma’s policy and Chu has said the even though he favours continuing to increase economic cooperation, he would pursue it incrementally and at a slower pace than Ma.
Every Chinese leader since Mao has wanted to reunify what Beijing regards as its renegade province with the mainland. With the hollowing of Taiwan’s economic base, its brain drain and ever diminishing diplomatic recognition around the world (although the crucial support and protection of the United States remains), doing nothing and saying less might be Xi’s better bet.