Taiwan leader Ma to meet Chinese President Xi: officials

Taiwan's President Ma Ying-jeou will meet his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping in Singapore this weekend, the two sides said, in what will be the first meeting between leaders from the rivals since the end of a civil war in 1949.

The two presidents will "exchange views on cross-Strait issues" Ma's spokesman Charles Chen said Tuesday, referring to the stretch of water separating mainland China and Taiwan.

The intention of the visit is to "secure cross-Strait peace," but no agreement will be signed, he said.

China confirmed the meeting in a short dispatch on the state Xinhua news agency early Wednesday, saying the two sides would "exchange views on promoting the peaceful development of cross-Strait relations".

The surprise meeting follows a gradual warming of relations with Beijing since Ma of the China-friendly Kuomintang (KMT) came to power in 2008.

Beijing still considers the island part of its territory, even though the two sides have been governed separately since Nationalist leader Chiang Kai-shek and his KMT forces fled to Taiwan after losing the civil war to Mao Zedong's communists.

"The purpose of President Ma's visit is to secure cross-Strait peace and maintain the status quo of the Taiwan Straits," Chen said in a statement.

"No agreement will be signed, nor any joint statement be released," he said, adding that Ma will hold a press conference on Thursday.

The head of Taiwan's top China policy decision-making body, the Mainland Affairs Council, was expected to give more details about the talks.

The White House gave a cautious welcome to the surprise announcement of a meeting between its major rival, China, and regional ally Taiwan.

"We would certainly welcome steps that are taken on both sides of the Taiwan strait to try and reduce tensions and improve cross-Strait relations," said spokesman Josh Earnest.

"But we will have to see what actually comes out of the meeting."

Ma's hopes for a meeting with Xi have previously been dashed, despite improved relations.

He had hoped to meet the Chinese leader at an APEC meeting in Beijing in November but said China had refused.

"This is a milestone in cross-Strait relations," said Professor Chao Chun-shan, an expert in mainland affairs at Tamkang University in Taipei.

"It should be helpful for the stabilisation of the region," he told the Apple Daily.

But some opposition political parties expressed concern over the meeting and called on supporters to protest on Wednesday outside parliament.

- Concern over closer ties -

While ties with China have warmed under Ma, public sentiment has turned against closer relations as fears over Beijing's influence grow.

Ma will step down next year after a maximum two terms and the main opposition China-sceptic Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) is expected to win the presidential election in January.

A senior DPP spokesman told local media the party would not comment until further details of the visit were released.

The KMT suffered its heaviest-ever local election defeat last year, with its China-friendly strategy a major factor.

While closer ties with Beijing have brought trade pacts and a tourism boom, many voters feel big business has benefited, rather than ordinary Taiwanese people.

There are also concerns over lack of transparency -- last year saw the unprecedented occupation of parliament by student protesters angered by a trade agreement they said had been made in secret.

But Ma has repeatedly defended his China-friendly policies, saying they have brought stability to the region.

The KMT adheres to the "1992 consensus" -- a tacit agreement between the party and Beijing which acknowledges there is "one China," but allows each side their own interpretation.

Ma has warned against the consequences of diverging from the 1992 consensus, which the DPP does not recognise.

DPP candidate Tsai Ing-wen has repeatedly said that she will maintain the status quo if elected president in January, but is likely to face pressure from pro-independent voices within her own party.

She has also been criticised by the KMT, which says she has not fully explained how her policy will work.

The KMT replaced its pro-China presidential candidate last month as the deeply divided party struggles for public support.

Party chairman Eric Chu was endorsed as the KMT's new contender after members voted against Hung Hsiu-chu representing them at the polls, following concern that her conservative views fly in the face of public sentiment.

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