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Taiwan-China Meeting Leaves Many on Island Democracy Wary

Taiwan's President Ma Ying-jeou addresses media during a press conference detailing his planned meeting with China's President Xi Jinping, at the Presidential Office in Taipei, Taiwan, Thursday, Nov. 5, 2015.
Taiwan's President Ma Ying-jeou addresses media during a press conference detailing his planned meeting with China's President Xi Jinping, at the Presidential Office in Taipei, Taiwan, Thursday, Nov. 5, 2015.

Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou is running into skepticism at home over his impending historic meeting with China's president, aimed at locking in the dialogue that he has built — from zero — with Beijing during his nearly eight years in office.

No deals will be signed when Ma meets Xi Jinping on Saturday in Singapore, his government assures, and the first-ever Taiwan-China presidential summit will simply "consolidate'' peace. But hopes of peace and partnerships are clashing with fears the island democracy is getting sucked too deeply into the orbit of the Communist mainland it split from in 1949.

Ma hopes to prove the benefits of tight relations with an old political rival before he is term-limited out of office next year, yet many Taiwanese opposed his outreach even before Wednesday's surprise announcement of the meeting. Opposition to a trade deal with Beijing last year sparked a rally that drew more than 200,000 protesters and the 24-day occupation of Taiwan's Parliament by students.

There has been no similar reaction to the Ma-Xi meeting: Protesters have numbered in the dozens, not thousands. But holding the meeting is still "tricky politically in Taiwan,'' said Alan Romberg, East Asia Program director with Washington think tank the Stimson Center.

"The opposition will obviously use this to charge Ma and the Nationalist Party with kowtowing to Beijing,'' Romberg said.

Taiwanese are wary but open-minded about Ma's meeting with Xi, which Ma said was the product of two years of behind-the-scenes planning at lower levels. However, the short notice of the announcement in a democracy used to lengthy political debates has raised suspicion among Taiwanese that Ma and his Nationalist Party are hiding something.

Many already had concerns over the transparency, pace and riskiness of the 23 economic agreements Taiwan has signed with Beijing under Ma, and worry China will leverage those agreements to control Taiwan. China still claims sovereignty over proudly self-ruled Taiwan and demands eventual reunification, by force if necessary.

"President Ma or the Nationalist Party may regard the meeting with Xi as a historical moment or a breakthrough in a stagnant relationship,'' said Bernie Huang, 27, a Taipei high school teacher.

"However, Taiwanese people deserve to know why the meeting is set up and what Ma and Xi will discuss,'' he said. "Will the meeting do Taiwan any good politically or economically? Will the talk promote bilateral peace? Or is President Ma going to sell our country?''

Ma said Thursday he hopes his summit with Xi helps ease the diplomatic isolation Beijing has imposed on Taiwan. The island has no United Nations membership and is officially recognized by just 22 mostly small and impoverished countries. Ma said has encountered "no small amount of trouble'' joining international events.

Positive outcomes from the meeting, such as signs of long-term peaceful ties with no strings attached for Taiwan, could revive the Nationalist Party's prospects in presidential and legislative elections early next year. The opposition Democratic Progressive Party's presidential candidate, Tsai Ing-wen, is leading in polls and wants to talk more cautiously with Beijing.

Unlike the DPP, the Nationalists technically consider Taiwan part of one China. Beijing takes the same view, and though the two sides interpret that differently, they have used that common ground as a basis for negotiations.

When Ma and Xi meet, they will address each other as "Mr.,'' a sign of equal status that Taiwan's public is keen to see. Taiwanese whose businesses are tied to China, already the island's largest trade partner and top investment destination, will be looking for hints of new economic dividends.

"This meeting with Xi Jinping will not produce secret agreements or pledges,'' Ma told the news conference. "We will make every effort to be open and transparent. This helps Taiwan-mainland China relations and helps regional peace.''

Any hint of a backroom deal, or pressure from Xi to open talks on political issues, could reignite discontent that drove last year's protests in Taipei.

"All of us Taiwanese people believe Ma Ying-jeou will sign a peace accord with Xi Jinping and of course it's going to be done in secret,'' said Hung Te-jen, 56, member of the advocacy group Freedom Taiwan Party. "When the accord is signed . China will have the right to send troops over here.''

Taiwanese recoiled at Xi's advice in 2013 against putting off political issues from one generation to the next and last year's suggestion that Beijing rule Taiwan as a special administrative region like Hong Kong.

In China, the official media has primarily focused on the trust-building nature of the meeting, while many ordinary Chinese see it a step toward the mainland's long-cherished goal of reunification with Taiwan.

"It shows clearly the trend that Taiwan will be returning to China sooner or later,'' student Wang Jaixu said in an interview in downtown Beijing.

Ma denies the meeting is aimed at winning electoral support for the Nationalists. "The object of our decision is not the next election,'' he said at a news conference Thursday. "It's the happiness of the next generation.''

Some analysts doubt the summit will boost the Nationalists, suggesting the two sides may discuss how to continue party-to-party exchanges if the Nationalists lose power and Beijing chafes at an opposition government.

"We need to wait for more information, but I doubt it will lead to any mass panic or excitement,'' said Ku Chung-hwa, a standing board member with the legislative monitoring group Citizens' Congress Watch.