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Sieren's China: Mr Xi meets Mr Ma

For the first time in over 66 years, a Chinese president is about to shake hands with the president of Taiwan. This will breach a Beijing taboo but not much more, says DW's Frank Sieren.

The leaders of China and Taiwan are meeting for the first time since the Communists came to power in Beijing in 1949. Chinese President Xi Jinping and his Taiwanese counterpart Ma Ying Jeou will come face to face in Singapore on Saturday. The picture of the two statesmen shaking hands and their calling each other "Mr" will go down in the history books. Beijing has insisted on the two not calling each other "president" because this would imply that the two states are equal. Nonetheless, the meeting breaches a taboo, especially as many conservatives in Beijing are displeased.

Ma is also under pressure at home. Since the meeting was announced earlier this week, there have been several protests in Taipei. Young Taiwanese citizens are particularly worried that Taiwan will become even more dependent on the People's Republic through rapprochement.

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DW columnist Frank Sieren

Taiwan's most important trading partner is China by far, with 39 percent of exports going to the mainland - 10 percent more than 10 years ago. This is the case although Taiwan is producing in China more and more. That's why Ma has been trying to cooperate more closely with Xi since taking office in 2008.

Limited space for rapprochement

The last time he felt such pressure was in spring 2014, when students occupied the parliament in Taipei for three weeks. They wanted to prevent a trade pact with China and they were successful in that it has not been ratified to this day. However, the ice between Taipei and Beijing is broken. Several other economic agreements have been signed, tourism between the island and the mainland has increased considerably.

So the two former foes have entered a new era, but not too much can be expected in the short term from the meeting between Xi and Ma. Their prospects for further rapprochement are limited. Elections are coming up in Taiwan in January and the predictions are that voters will not opt for Ma's party, the Kuomintang, and its candidate Eric Chu, but for his rival Tsai Ing from the opposition Democratic Progressive Party. She is a clear opponent of rapprochement with the mainland.

Tricky starting position

Through the meeting on Saturday, Xi wants to exercise his influence over the election campaign. He will only really be able to do this if he makes concessions that are convincing enough to young Taiwanese citizens. This would mean saying that Beijing will give Taipei political freedom and not intervene. But he probably does not even want this himself and the conservatives in Beijing would certainly not let him get away with such a pledge.

Moreover, the skeptics in Taiwan would retort: What is such a pledge really worth? With the summit, Xi is already proving that he is exercising influence and intervening. The situation is so tricky that it would probably be better not to say anything at all than say something that could be misconstrued. That's why the outcome in Singapore will probably not be much more than a historic handshake.

DW's Frank Sieren has lived in Beijing for 20 years.

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