Singapore, Nov 7 (Reuters): Leaders of political rivals Taiwan and China met on Saturday for the first time in more than 60 years for talks that come amid rising anti-Beijing sentiment on the self-ruled democratic island and weeks ahead of elections there.
The talks between China President Xi Jinping and Taiwan President Ma Ying-jeou, the first such meeting since China's civil war ended in 1949, are being held at a luxury hotel in the neutral venue of Singapore.
Both men shook hands and smiled in front of a mass of journalists, Xi wearing a red tie, the colour of the Communist Party, and Ma a blue one, the colour of his Nationalist Party.
Moving into a meeting room, Xi, speaking first and sitting opposite Ma, said Chinese people on the two sides of the Taiwan Strait had the ability and wisdom to solve their own problems.
“No force can pull us apart,” Xi said. “We are one family.”
In response, Ma said he was determined to promote peace across the Taiwan Strait and that relations should be based on sincerity, wisdom and patience.
Ma also asked Xi indirectly to respect Taiwan's democracy.
“Both sides should respect each other's values and way of life,” he said.
China's Nationalists, also known as the Kuomintang (KMT), retreated to Taiwan after losing the civil war to the Communists, who are still in charge in Beijing.
The mainland has never renounced the use of force to bring what it considers a breakaway province under its control.
The meeting comes ahead of presidential and parliamentary elections on Taiwan that the independence-leaning Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) is favoured to win, something Beijing is desperate to avoid.
While bilateral trade, investment and tourism have blossomed - particularly since Ma and his KMT took power in 2008 - there is deep suspicion on both sides and no progress has been made on any sort of political settlement.
No agreements are expected in what is seen as a highly symbolic get-together in Singapore, a largely ethnic Chinese city-state that has maintained good ties with both for decades.
Protocol problems loom large for democratic Taiwan and autocratic China.
China's Taiwan Affairs Office said the two men would address each other as “mister”, presumably to avoid calling each other ”president”, as neither officially recognises the other as head of state.
The meeting comes as Xi hopes to cement his place among China's pantheon of great leaders and Ma, stepping down next year due to term limits, tries to shape his legacy marred by growing anti-Beijing feeling in Taiwan.
Both sides will hold separate news conferences after a short closed-door meeting, followed by dinner before Ma flies back to Taiwan later in the day.
“It will be of huge symbolic importance, but will not be a 'game-changer', as Taiwanese voters are wary of the mainland's rising influence over the island”, Yoel Sano, head of political risk with BMI Research, said of the meeting.
Chinese state media said the leaders would eat their dinner at a round table, presumably to avoid the thorny protocol issue of who would sit at the head of it.