Why the Leaders of China and Taiwan Are Meeting for the First Time Since 1949

An activist holding a placard showing the merged faces of Taiwan's President Ma Ying-jeou and China's President Xi Jinping, protests against the upcoming Singapore meeting between Ma and Xi, in front of the Presidential Office in Taipei, Taiwan, November 6. As Taiwan President Ma Ying-jeou was being peppered with reporters' questions ahead of his historic meeting with China's leader, Chinese state television was showing a dreary press conference on industrial reform. Pichi Chuang/Reuters

For the first time since 1949, when Mao Zedong's rebels drove Chiang Kai-shek and 1 million nationalist followers to the island of Taiwan and consolidated Communist Party rule in China, the presidents of Taiwan, Ma Ying Jeou, and the People's Republic of China, Xi Jinping, will meet for a summit meeting Saturday in Singapore. That fact alone makes it a historic meeting. Much less clear is why the meeting is occurring now, and what, if anything, might come of it.

Beijing regards Taiwan as a renegade province, not an independent country. Its public position has always been that Taipei must someday return to the mainland's fold—period, end of subject. It has worked assiduously—and, for the most part, successfully—to isolate Taiwan in all international forums. Inconveniently for Beijing, however, in the intervening decades Taiwan has become a vibrant, prosperous democracy, while China remains an authoritarian one-party state. Indeed, there is some irony in the fact that much of the commentary around the summit has centered on how it might affect the election prospects of Taiwan's incumbent party, the Kuomintang (KMT), which currently trails in the polls with the election just a few months away.

The KMT has long had the reputation of being better able to manage relations with the mainland, and it may be that President Ma believes that meeting Xi is a political hail Mary, a last minute historic gesture that could shake up an election whose result has long seemed inevitable: a victory for Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) candidate Tsai Ing-wen, who would be the first woman president of Taiwan.

But it's entirely unclear how the meeting might change the KMT's electoral prospects. The last seven years have seen a tightening of economic ties between Taiwan and China. Cross-strait investment has boomed, Taiwanese businessmen have been all over the mainland for years now, and mainland tourists pour into Taiwan. If anything, in fact, the preeminent fear on the island is that Taipei was effectively being swallowed economically by the mainland. That sentiment hit a fever pitch last year when the legislature passed an agreement liberalizing services trade across the straits. The result was the so-called "Sunflower'' Student movement, in which protestors occupied the legislature for nearly a month last spring.

The overarching political sentiment in Taiwan, analysts say, is a desire for the status quo: maintaining the island's democracy at all costs, but also wary of the so called "independence" movement, which the DPP has pushed, and which Beijing bitterly opposes. The summit, Ma probably calculates, hits that sweet spot. For two years, according to reports in the Taiwan press, the KMT has sought a summit with Beijing. Finally getting one, even on his way out the door, is a significant political event in cross-strait relations. President Xi will, according to press reports, address his counterpart as "President" Ma. Xi is giving legitimacy both to Ma and by extension to the government in Taipei. "There's no other way to read it," says an east Asian diplomat stationed in China.

To get a sense of the meeting's historical import, consider 1996, when Taiwan prepared for its first ever direct, free presidential election. In the spring of that year, a furious Chinese government bracketed Taiwan with missiles that fell well within the island's territorial waters. The crisis only ended when U.S. President Bill Clinton sent two aircraft carrier groups to the straits. Now, nearly 20 years later, the run up to the next free presidential election in Taiwan will be marked by the first ever summit between the two sides. If Ma the lame duck is playing for the history books, he's succeeding.

But what of Beijing's motives? Why did Xi agree to the meeting? Beijing knows it has kicked up a hornet's nest in the region with its provocative actions in the South China Sea—constructing islands in disputed waters apparently for military purposes. The Obama administration in response recently sent a destroyer within the 12-mile radius of the islands that Beijing insists is its territorial waters. If, as many analysts suspect, Beijing's long term goal is to push the U.S out as the dominant power in east Asia, this has been a clumsy way to do it; it has made the other claimants to the islands—who include the Philippines, Vietnam and (yes) Taiwan—exceedingly nervous, and if anything pushed them closer to Washington.

Note that prior to going to Singapore for the meeting with Ma, Xi visited Vietnam. "Xi now has a sense of urgency," about the South China Sea issue, says Lin Chong Pin, the former vice chairman of the Mainland Affairs Council in Taipei and a former deputy secretary of defense. But Xi also has a flair for the bold, and this meeting goes a long way toward solidifying the "one country, two systems" equation that defines mainland-Taiwan relations. It is, "without question, a de facto recognition of a legitimate government in Taiwan," says the mainland-based diplomat.

And if that puts the pro-independence forces in Taiwan on the defensive before the election, Xi apparently reasons, so be it. Even if the DPP prevails in January, the status quo will be far harder to change after this single, historic meeting in Singapore. China's leader, simply by his presence, is letting his counterpart, and the world, know that when it comes to Taiwan, he understands reality, and is prepared to deal with it—without firing missiles into Taiwanese harbors.