An historic handshake in Singapore between the presidents of China and Taiwan this weekend was welcomed by the United States and effusively praised by Chinese state media, but greeted with skepticism in Taipei amid an election being fought in part over relations with Beijing.
China’s communist leader Xi Jinping spoke of ties of brotherly ties across the Taiwan Strait, an old cold War frontier, as he met his democratically elected Taiwan counterpart Ma Ying-jeou in Singapore on Saturday.
“The 66-year history of cross-Strait relations testifies that no matter how great the difficulty, no matter how many risks there are, no force can pull us apart,” Xi told Ma.
“We are brothers, connected by flesh even if our bones are broken, we are a family whose blood is thicker than water,” he added.
"Even though this is the first meeting, we feel like old friends," Ma told the Chinese president.
"Behind us is history stretching for 60 years. Now before our eyes there are fruits of conciliation instead of confrontation."
The first high-level meeting across the Taiwan Strait since the end of the civil war in 1949 drew words of welcome from Washington, which has formal diplomatic relations with Beijing but close security ties with Taipei.
"The United States welcomes the meeting between leaders on both sides of the Taiwan Strait and the historic improvement in cross-strait relations in recent years," State Department spokesman John Kirby said in a statement issued after the talks.
"The United States has a deep and abiding interest in peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait, and we encourage further progress by both sides toward building ties, reducing tensions, and promoting stability on the basis of dignity and respect," he said.
The surprise announcement last week of talks sparked protests outside Taipei's parliament, the Legislative Yuan, on Wednesday as protesters said they were worried about the effect closer ties with China's ruling Communist Party, once Taiwan's sworn enemy, could have on the island's democratic way of life.
Ma met Xi, whose government regards Taiwan as a breakaway province awaiting reunification under Beijing's rule, just two months before elections in which his Beijing-friendly Nationalist Party is trailing the Democratic Progressive Party.
The DPP favors keeping Taiwan as a political entity distinct from the communist mainland, and its ranks include many who support independent statehood for the island, a move which Beijing threatens to use force to stop.
DPP Chairwoman Tsai Ing-wen, the party’s presidential candidate in the Jan. 16 polls, issued a statement after talks saying she was “disappointed” and accusing Ma of abetting Xi’s efforts to limit the choices of Taiwan’s 23 million people.
“We had hoped that President Ma would speak about Taiwan’s democracy, freedom, and the existence of the Republic of China,” she said, referring to Taiwan’s formal name and the government that ruled China from 1911 until it was overthrown by Mao Zedong’s communists.
“More importantly, that he would mention the freedom of the Taiwanese people to make their own choices. However, none of these were mentioned,” she said.
“Political preconditions that are devoid of democratic procedure and without a firm basis in public opinion will never be accepted by the people of Taiwan,” Tsai added.
Closer ties with Beijing under Ma's Nationalist Party have sparked a growing public backlash in Taiwan, expressed in last year's student-led Sunflower movement which occupied government buildings in protest at a proposed bilateral trade deal.
Chinese media, all state controlled, censored its coverage of Ma’s remarks in Singapore while Xi’s were broadcast in their entirety. Reporters from Taiwan also faced difficulties covering the roughly one-hour talks in Singapore.
China’s nationalistic Global Times, a Communist Party publications, was quick to pounce on what it called the “shrieking cries” of Tsai.
“As Tsai is widely projected to win the island's leadership election next year, her Saturday statement has prompted the mainland to become strongly defensive against her possible policy if taking office,” it said in an editorial.
“If Tsai gets elected and deals with the cross-Straits (sic) relations as she did on Saturday, Chinese society must face up to her challenges and the relations across the Straits (sic) have to withstand the uncertainties thereby caused,” the newspaper added.
Taiwan-based analyst J. Michael Cole, editor in chief of the website “Thinking Taiwan,” wrote that “photo ops and a long handshake aside, the landmark meeting yielded precious little substance and is unlikely to have much of an impact on future relations between Taiwan and China, as that will be decided elsewhere.”
The main reason, said Cole, was that Ma will step down after two terms in may 2016 and his low ratings mean his Nationalist Party “faces a high prospect of defeat” in the presidential elections to be held on January 16, 2016.
“Thus, Mr. Xi’s historic meeting was with a man who isn’t trusted back home, a lame duck who doesn’t even head the (Nationalists) anymore,” he wrote.
“For many, a meeting would be truly historic if it involved the person who is likely to be the next president of Taiwan and who will have enough time and strong enough a mandate to affect the relationship with Beijing,” added Cole, who is also a fellow at the China Policy Institute at Britain’s University of Nottingham.