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World Presidents of China and Taiwan hold historic first meeting since 1949

Chinese President Xi Jinping, right, and Taiwan President Ma Ying-jeou wave to journalists before their historic meeting at Shangrila hotel in Singapore on November 7, 2015.

ROSLAN RAHMAN/AFP/Getty Images

The leaders of China and Taiwan met Saturday for the first time since the formerly bitter Cold War foes split amid civil war 66 years ago, and though no concrete agreement resulted, both hailed the meeting as a sign of a new stability in relations.

Chinese President Xi Jinping and Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou came together on neutral ground in the Southeast Asian city-state of Singapore, walking toward each other in a hotel ballroom in front of a backdrop of yellow — a traditional colour of Chinese emperors.

The two men smiled broadly as they shook hands for more than one minute, turning slightly to the side to accommodate a host of photojournalists in the ballroom. No national flags were present — a necessary work-around to overcome China's refusal to recognize Taiwan's sovereignty or its government's formal legitimacy — and the two men were referred to merely as "Mr. Xi" and "Mr. Ma" to further reduce the chances of bruised sensitivities.

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In brief opening remarks in front of reporters before going into a closed-door meeting, Xi said, "History will record this day." He alluded to China's long-cherished goals of unification with Taiwan, saying, "We are one family," and "No force can pull us apart."

Ma said, "Both sides should respect each other's values and way of life," while adding that relations between the sides were "the most peaceful and stable they have ever been."

When they split in 1949, both sides aspired to absorb the other, with each claiming the mantle of the only legitimate government of all of China, Taiwan included. Communist Party-ruled China still demands that Taiwan eventually be unified with the mainland, by force if necessary, while many citizens of democratic Taiwan increasingly prefer to simply maintain the separate status the island has carved out over more than six decades.

Critics of Ma in Taiwan are wary that his meeting with Xi and similar contacts will pave the way for Beijing to assert greater control over the island, further deepening its international isolation.

However, Ma said at a post-meeting news conference that he discussed with Xi the Taiwanese people's desire for greater participation in global society, particularly for nongovernmental organizations. China refuses to acknowledge the island as anything other than a breakaway province, and pressure from Beijing keeps Taiwan out of the United Nations and other major multinational organizations.

Ma said Xi told him that China would "appropriately handle" Taiwanese moves toward greater participation on a case-by-case basis.

Each leader hopes to seal his legacy as one who helped bring decades of division and mistrust to a mutually acceptable end. But the meeting was more about the symbolism of coming together than about substance. Both sides had said no agreements would be signed or joint statements issued.

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In all, the two men met for an hour. Afterward, the two sides held separate news conferences, handled for the Chinese side by spokesman Zhang Zhijun of the Taiwan Affairs Office and for the Taiwanese side by Ma himself.

"We are here today so that the tragedies in our history cannot be replayed," Zhang quoted Xi as saying at the meeting.

Zhang said that China understands Taiwan's desire for greater international space, but that Beijing cannot agree to moves that would "split the country," reflecting its insistence that only it can represent the Chinese nation.

Ma also said they discussed upgrading a hotline between their Cabinet-level agencies responsible for contacts between the sides and agreed to study the issue of establishing representative offices on each other's soil, a long-shot proposal that has languished for years.

He said he also told Xi about fears in Taiwan that China might make good on its military threats, as seen in the scores of missiles based directly opposite the island and recent Chinese war games that appeared to simulate an attack on Taiwan's presidential office.

Ma said Xi told him that China's defence was "comprehensive" and not directed at any parties in particular.

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Following his news conference, Ma joined Xi at a banquet at the upscale Shangri-La Hotel, where the meeting was held.

Three decades of hostilities followed the 1949 split, occasionally bursting into warfare in the Taiwan Strait — including over the once heavily militarized Matsu and Kinmen island group — making dialogue all but impossible. Tensions eased after China shifted to endorsing the option of "peaceful unification" alongside military threats in 1979, although it wasn't until 1993 that representatives of the two governments met in Singapore to establish the groundwork for future talks.

While subsequent talks achieved little, they began bearing fruit after Ma's election in 2008, resulting in 23 agreements on trade and technical matters. Although that has failed to produce Beijing's desired progress on political matters, Saturday's meeting was seen as moving the relationship into a new stage.

"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.

In China, where nationalism runs high, many have cheered the meeting as a further step in what they consider an inevitable trend toward unification.

Beijing salesman Huang Xiaojie said the compromise required to arrange the meeting boded well for cross-Strait relations. "At an official level, it will definitely accelerate Taiwan's return," he said.

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Many in Taiwan are wary of such a result, and several hundred protesters gathered at the Economic Affairs Ministry in Taipei, waving banners warning that Ma was aiming "to sell out Taiwan."

However, others see Xi's willingness to meet with the top Taiwanese leader on foreign soil as a nod of respect toward the island's government — even if the meeting's negotiated protocol demanded that the two leaders refer to each other with the title "Mr." rather than "President."

"If the two sides meet each other, only then will they understand more and gradually become more familiar with each other," said 50-year-old Taipei resident Peter Sun.

In Washington, State Department spokesperson John Kirby welcomed the meeting between the two leaders and "the historic improvement in cross-Strait relations in recent years."

"The United States has a deep and abiding interest in peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait, and we encourage further progress by both sides toward building ties, reducing tensions, and promoting stability on the basis of dignity and respect," Kirby said.

Ma is required to step down after two terms next year, with elections in January to choose his successor. He has denied that the meeting with Xi was aimed at affecting the polls, and the event's effect on voter sentiment remains to be seen.

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Zhang, the Chinese official, said China had no interest in meddling in Taiwan's election, but was concerned only that cross-Strait relations continue to develop "in a correct manner."

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