LONDON – A great deal of water has flowed through the Taiwan Strait in the 70 years since the leader of China’s Communists, Mao Zedong, met the leader of his nationalist opponents, Chiang Kai-shek. So the recent meeting in Singapore between their heirs, President Xi Jinping of the People’s Republic and his Taiwanese counterpart, Ma Ying-jeou, could legitimately be described as historic.
The diplomatic negotiation that preceded the meeting was exquisitely complex, even covering who should pay for dinner (they split the bill). But, after a brief exchange of views behind closed doors, no joint statement was issued and only a heavily sanitized account of the meeting was made available to China’s state media.
So why did the meeting happen, and what does it portend?
Ever since Mao’s Communists won the civil war (which the last meeting between the parties, in 1945, had been called to try to avert) and Chiang Kai-shek’s Kuomintang forces withdrew to Taiwan, relations between the two sides have smoldered without ever really catching fire. While there was no love lost between the United States and the Kuomintang leadership, the US gave Taiwan assurances of military protection, which deterred China from trying to unify the island with the mainland by force.