Xi Hosts Ex-Taiwan Leader in Beijing for Landmark Meeting

(Bloomberg) -- Chinese leader Xi Jinping met former Taiwan President Ma Ying-jeou in Beijing, a rare act of diplomatic engagement between the two sides seemingly designed to spotlight the Communist Party’s willingness to talk to the island’s opposition.

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The two septuagenarians shook hands before each delivering remarks while seated across from each other in a large conference room inside the Great Hall of the People on Wednesday afternoon.

“External interference cannot stop the historical trend of national reunification,” Xi told Ma — the first former Taiwan leader to visit the Chinese capital — while accompanied by Cai Qi and Wang Huning, two top party officials. His comments appeared aimed at the US, which provides Taiwan with political and military support.

Ma, president of the self-ruled democracy from 2008 to 2016, said both sides of the Taiwan Strait should oppose independence and stick to the 1992 consensus. That’s an agreement between China and the Kuomintang, which Ma once led, stating there is just one China, although they differ on their definition of that country.

“If war breaks out between the two sides of the Taiwan Strait, it’ll be unbearable for the Chinese nation,” he added. “Chinese people on both sides of the strait are definitely wise enough to handle various disputes peacefully and avoid conflicts.”

Xi told Ma that talks could start if Taiwan recognizes it is part of China, according to Xinhua News Agency, which said the Chinese president also extended condolences to victims of a deadly earthquake in Taiwan earlier this month.

While the meeting is unlikely to lead to any fundamental changes in cross-strait ties, it carries symbolic weight. Initially reported to be scheduled for Monday, the sitdown eventually landed on the eve of a leaders summit between the US, Japan and the Philippines in Washington to discuss concerns over China’s growing assertiveness.

Holding a Xi-Ma meeting around the same time as the US gathering could be an effort to contrast Beijing’s “supposedly peaceful handling of cross-strait ties with the defense-oriented components of the trilateral,” said Chong Ja Ian, an associate professor of political science at the National University of Singapore.

China’s most-powerful leader since Mao Zedong may also be trying “to show that people from Taiwan, especially political figures, will be well treated and respected if they are pliant to his wishes,” he added.

The ruling Communist Party considers Taiwan a breakaway province, and Xi has pledged to bring it under China’s control someday, by force if necessary. Beijing frequently flexes its muscles on the issue, most notably by holding unprecedented military exercises around the island after then House Speaker Nancy Pelosi visited Taipei in 2022.

In contrast to the bonhomie between Xi and Ma, Chinese officials have condemned Taiwan’s ruling Democratic Progressive Party and its incoming president, Lai Ching-te, as “separatists” who risk starting a war. Taiwan has warned China is likely to step up its pressure on Lai, including militarily, before and after he is inaugurated in May.

China’s preferred negotiating partner in Taiwan is the KMT. Cross-strait ties flourished during Ma’s time as president, and he met with Xi in Singapore in 2015. That was the first summit between the two sides since they fought a civil war in the first half of 20th century.

Still, Ma’s influence in Taiwan has waned in recent years, exemplified by his failed attempt to broker a unity ticket between two Beijing-friendly candidates in the recent presidential election. Despite that he remains a rare Taiwanese figure with direct access to top leaders in the world’s second-largest economy.

During a visit by Ma to China last year, officials highlighted their nation’s cultural links with the island, as they have done on his current trip. Xi said on Wednesday that “compatriots on both sides of the Taiwan Strait have always been of the same origin, holding hands and looking forward to the future.”

Song Tao, the head of Beijing’s Taiwan Affairs Office who also attended the sitdown, said in a meeting with Ma in the southern city of Shenzhen earlier in his trip that “compatriots on both sides of the Taiwan Strait are all Chinese.”

Chinese state media reported Ma visited the Great Wall near Beijing, where he sang a song dating back to the nation’s war with Japan. While in the northwestern city of Xi’an, the former Taiwanese leader visited archives that hold texts China says prove it holds sovereignty over disputed islands in the South China Sea.

--With assistance from Brian Fowler and Evelyn Yu.

(Updates with Xinhua readout in the sixth paragraph.)

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