BEIJING — The leaders of China and Taiwan held their first meeting since the end of a civil war that split the Chinese nation more than 60 years ago, pledging Saturday to build closer ties and work to resolve their differences peacefully.
Chinese President Xi Jinping and his Taiwanese counterpart, Ma Ying-jeou, came together on neutral ground in Singapore, walking toward each other in a packed hotel ballroom in front of a plain yellow backdrop flanked by palm trees.
The two men smiled as they shook hands firmly for more than a minute, twisting to each side to pose for photographs, before waving to the cameras. Each wore a tie to represent his party’s respective colors: Xi’s red for the Communist Party, Ma’s blue for his Nationalists.
Then they moved into a meeting room, where they sat opposite each other to make opening remarks before settling down for closed-door talks.
“History will remember this day,” Xi said. “There was a time when clouds gathered above the straits; separated by the ocean, families lost contact from each other, countless families were left with unforgettable pains. But the straits cannot cut off kinship and familial love.
“There’s no force that can separate us, because we are brothers who are still connected by our flesh even if our bones are broken. We are a family — blood is thicker than water. Today we are sitting together so that our tragic history won’t repeat itself.”
In response, Ma said that he was determined to promote peace across the Taiwan Strait and that relations should be based on sincerity, wisdom and patience. He said relations were better than at any time since 1949.
“What confronts us is the need to use understanding to get rid of conflict and to look forward to prosperity,” Ma said. “We need to announce to the world that we want to consolidate ties across the strait.”
Ma also asked Xi indirectly to respect Taiwan’s democracy.
“Both sides should respect each other’s values and way of life,” he said.
Later, Ma said he had felt “really good” when meeting with Xi and added that “we both used a lot of strength when we shook hands.”
Both men want to go down in history as having helped to end decades of division, mistrust and sometimes armed conflict across the Taiwan Strait. But the meeting was more about symbolism than substance, with experts saying they had heard nothing from either leader that broke from precedent.
Nevertheless, Xi used the meeting to tell Ma that he welcomed Taipei joining the multinational Asian Infrastructure Bank, which Beijing founded this year. China had rejected Taiwan’s initial application to join.
Leaders of the two sides have not met since Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalist Party, also known as the Kuomintang (KMT), lost the Chinese civil war to Mao Zedong’s Communists and fled to Taiwan in 1949.
The state the Nationalists established there eventually evolved into a proud and vibrant democracy. China, though, still views it as a renegade province and insists that Taiwan will one day be taken back, by force, if necessary.
The meeting comes at a sensitive time, just over nine weeks ahead of presidential and parliamentary elections on the island, and amid considerable distrust of the Chinese government there.
Taiwan’s opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), whose candidate enjoys a strong lead in the presidential race, criticized the timing of the meeting. It also blasted Ma for conducting negotiations in secret and arranging the meeting without public consultation.
After so many decades apart, the meeting between the leaders of Communist China and democratic Taiwan has been closely choreographed.
No flags were on display in the hotel, and the two leaders addressed each other as “mister” rather than “president,” reflecting Beijing’s insistence that Taiwan is a renegade province rather than a separate nation and their 1992 agreement that there is only “one China.”
After the roughly 50-minute closed-door meeting, the two sides held separate news conferences before heading to dinner. The leaders sat at a round table — presumably so neither sat at the head — and split the bill, officials said.
Closer ties with China is one of Ma’s signature policies, but while trade, investment and tourism have boomed, the benefits have not flowed to ordinary Taiwanese people as had been hoped, with wages stagnant and growth anemic.
Instead, unease about Taiwan’s growing dependence on China has grown while a political settlement seems as far off as ever. Last year, university students occupied parliament in Taipei to block ratification of a trade deal that they said would increase China’s hold over Taiwan, and tens of thousands of people later joined protests over the pace and lack of transparency of agreements with Beijing.
Before the meeting, Cornell University associate professor Allen Carlson had compared the significance of Saturday’s meeting to President Richard M. Nixon’s visit to China in 1972, or President Obama’s reopening of relations with Cuba.
Afterward, he said the comparison to Nixon’s visit was slightly undermined by the fact that Xi had not shown any willingness to deviate at all from the “one-China mantra.”
Nevertheless, he said, the meeting had created an opening for real change. “Given that the U.S.-China relationship is the most important bilateral dynamic in the world, and that Taiwan lies at the center of this great power dyad, this is still rather heady stuff,” he wrote in an e-mail.
But in Taiwan, the meeting has been less well-received by many ordinary people, a few hundred of whom staged a protest Saturday in Taipei, under heavy guard from police in riot gear.
Ma will complete eight years in office in January as an unpopular lame duck, and his Nationalist Party is trailing far behind the opposition DPP in the presidential race. Critics said the meeting looked like a last-ditch attempt by Ma and Beijing to bolster the Nationalists’ chances in the elections, by suggesting that ties with China would be better under their leadership than with the more independence-minded DPP.
The DPP maintains that Taiwan is an independent, sovereign nation but sees no need to make a formal declaration of independence, something that would dramatically heighten tensions with China. Its candidate in the presidential race, Tsai Ing-wen, has vowed to maintain good relations with Beijing.
On Saturday, there were some pointed references from both sides to how far relations had improved since Ma took power. “It is because of what has been accumulated over the past seven years, that the two sides of the strait can take this historic step today,” Xi said, while Ma said it would have been impossible without that 1992 agreement between the Communists and the Nationalists that there was only “one China.”
“The KMT is always insisting that they are uniquely positioned to engage with China,” said Nathan Batto, a political scientist at Academia Sinica in Taipei. “It’s not a new discourse and not necessarily a very effective one with the public.”
At a news conference after the meeting, Zhang Zhijun, the head of China’s Taiwan Affairs Office, said Beijing would not interfere in Taiwan’s elections, but he added that the past seven years have shown relations were on the “correct path” and should continue on that path. He also took a jab at “independence forces and separatists” in Taiwan, whom he accused of fanning hostility, disrupting stability and obstructing development.
China’s nationalist Global Times tabloid put the point across even more directly, arguing in an editorial that the DPP’s failure to formally abandon the goal of independence was like a “time bomb for Taiwan,” and saying that the Taiwan public should force the DPP’s Tsai to publicly back the 1992 consensus.
Shi Yinhong, a professor of international relations at Renmin University of China, said the meeting had been successful and “filled its purpose as a historic event.” But he added the emphasis on the 1992 consensus was a “clear message” to the DPP and said further meetings would take place only if Taiwan’s future leaders accepted that agreement.
At Saturday’s meeting, Taiwan’s Ma tried to persuade Xi to ease his island’s diplomatic isolation, saying how much it frustrated his people that Taiwanese nongovernmental organizations are blocked from many international meetings, for example.
Taiwan is recognized by only 22 nations and, at Beijing’s insistence, is excluded from many multinational organizations, including the United Nations. It is allowed to compete in the Olympics but only under the name of “Chinese Taipei.”
In response, Xi told Ma that he understood those concerns and said that as long as Taipei’s activities did not give the impression there was “one China and one Taiwan,” he was open to “consultation and reasonable arrangements” on the issue, Zhang said.
In what could be seen as a dig at the United States, and its commitment to defend Taiwan’s security, Xi also said the meeting had showed the world that “Chinese people on both sides are capable of solving our own problems.”
J. Michael Cole, a Taipei-based senior fellow at the University of Nottingham’s China Policy Institute, said that remark felt like “a swipe at the United States” at a time of tension over the South China Sea and as Washington and Taipei are also negotiating a possible arms package.
After the meeting, there were also signs of the deep differences between the two sides’ political philosophies and systems of government. State-run China Central Television cut away from Ma before he had completed his opening remarks at the meeting and did not broadcast his subsequent news conference.
That prompted some anger on Chinese social media, while other people pointed out that Ma had spoken himself at the news conference that followed the meeting and fielded more than a dozen questions. Xi, in contrast, left it to Zhang to talk to the press after the meeting; the head of China’s Taiwan Affairs Office took only three questions from reporters.
“You just called him your brother, and immediately stopped airing brother’s remarks,” one user complained on the Sina Weibo microblogging site. “Sixty-six years now and we still can’t hear Ma’s voice,” complained another.
“At the press conference, I think Taiwan beats the mainland hands down,” said another Weibo user. But others were more enthusiastic. “Hope we can one day reunite with Taiwan!” one person said.
But the news of the meeting did not make the lead item on state-run CCTV’s flagship evening news program in Beijing; it was relegated to fifth place. Instead, Xi’s state visit to Singapore led the broadcast.
Xu Yangjingjing contributed to this report.