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China and Taiwan's historic meeting, explained

Chinese leader Xi Jinping and Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou.
Chinese leader Xi Jinping and Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou.
Getty

The last time the leaders of China's Communist Party and the Kuomintang met, they were between two wars: one war against the Japanese Empire, which had just surrendered, and another war, on pause, against each other.

It was August 1945 in the Chinese city of Chongqing, China's wartime capital far inland from Beijing. The Communist Party and the Kuomintang-led Chinese government had paused their civil war in 1937 to join forces against the Japanese invaders, and their 1945 meeting was a toast to their victory, but it also heralded a return to their civil war.

Four years later, in 1949, the leaders of the Kuomintang fled mainland China in defeat for the island of Taiwan. Ever since, China has been one nation divided by an unresolved civil war, with the Communist Party ruling over the massive mainland and the Kuomintang over the Maine-size Taiwan.

This Saturday, the leaders of the Communist Party and the Kuomintang will meet for the first time since 1945. While both governments still claim the whole of China, their respective territories — now independent nations in all but name — have transformed dramatically in the seven decades since. This weekend's historic meeting in Singapore is a sign of how much things have changed since 1945 — and the ways in which they haven't.

What is the deal with China and Taiwan again?

Mao Zedong declares the People's Republic of China in Beijing in 1949, shortly after expelling KMT forces to Taiwan (Stevenliuyi/Wikimedia Commons)

Mao Zedong declares the People's Republic of China in Beijing in 1949, shortly after expelling KMT forces to Taiwan. (Stevenliuyi/Wikimedia Commons)

Technically, China and Taiwan are still considered one country by both governments and by the world. But in practice they have been totally separate since 1949, when China's Kuomintang leaders fled to the mostly Chinese island of Taiwan and governed there only.

For most of their history since 1949, relations between China and Taiwan1 have been very poor, with periods of low-level conflict and even moments when it looked like there would be full-blown war.

Relations between China and Taiwan are often referred to as "cross-strait relations," a reference to the Strait of Taiwan, the body of water that divides them.

It's not easy having two governments that claim the same giant country. Both countries call themselves "China," for example, but that's just the start. Until 1971, Taiwan held the United Nations seat for China, but that year lost it to Communist China.

The US, which opposed China's Communist Party and long considered it illegitimate, for many years maintained an embassy only in Taiwan. In 1979, after the US normalized relations with Communist China and opened an embassy to Beijing, it had to shut down the diplomatic compound in Taiwan. After all, it couldn't recognize both governments as legitimate when they claimed the same nation. Since 1979, the US has conducted diplomatic relations with Taiwan through a nonprofit center known as the American Institute in Taiwan, which acts as a barely unofficial embassy.

Still, the US has provided military support to Taiwan, wanting to keep the island nation strong enough to deter any Chinese invasion and thus prevent full-blown war. Diplomats and military officials in both China and Taiwan have for years, especially in the 1980s and '90s, scrutinized every official American word and gesture for signs of a shift in US policy.

In the past 20 years or so, as the civil war has faded into history and military tensions have ever so slowly cooled, China and Taiwan have remained diplomatically estranged but have grown economic relations. After all, two rising economies with a common language have a lot of incentives to do business.

Why are China-Taiwan tensions still going after 66 years?

Lam Yik Fei/Getty

Taiwanese student protesters occupy the legislature in 2014, in part over the government's unpopular outreaches to China. (Lam Yik Fei/Getty)

There are two reasons.

The first and most important is that they have to somehow resolve their competing claim over all of China, and every option for doing this is bad. They could fight a war, but today that would be far too costly to really even consider. They could peacefully reunite, but most Taiwanese don't want this. Taiwan has a higher standard of living and more political rights.

The experience of Hong Kong, where political rights have been eroded since it left British control to reunify with China in 1997, has made reunification with Taiwan unlikely. Taiwan could declare independence, but mainland China strongly opposes this — it would mean losing Taiwan forever — and in 2005 passed a law threatening military action if Taiwan formally seceded.

The second reason is, in a word, democracy. Since 1949, Taiwan has become democratic. Its voters cherish their political rights and strongly oppose anything that might erode their de facto independence. Last year, hundreds of thousands of Taiwanese protested new trade deals with China, a sign of popular distrust of Beijing's influence.2 Taiwan's citizens, when asked whether they identify as "Chinese" or "Taiwanese," have become much more likely to call themselves Taiwanese rather than Chinese.

The protests were, to be clear, about more than just Taiwan's China relations. Read more about the demonstrations, known as the Sunflower Movement, here.

Though Taiwan's current leader favors improving ties, he has said that when it comes to relations with China, he has to follow popular will. While he's considered pro-China by Taiwanese standards, he's also said that they could only ever reunify if China became democratic. China's authoritarianism is a hurdle to improved ties in other ways; democratic and nondemocratic states often have poor relations, as the differing systems breed distrust.

Still, Taiwan and China have gradually learned to live with their political problems. They've expanded economic ties over the years, growing trade deals, for example. Tourism between the two, heavily restricted by Beijing until a few years ago, has increased.

Relations have especially improved since 2008, when Taiwan elected Ma Ying-jeou as president. Ma is a member of the Kuomintang, which, ironically enough, has recently become Taiwan's more pro-China party. Ma oversaw expanding trade deals and low-level political talks that have led up to this weekend's historic meeting. But voters have reacted negatively to Ma's outreach, and punished the Kuomintang by voting out many party members in recent local elections.

What is this big China-Taiwan meeting all about?

Chinese leader Xi Jinping Getty Images

Chinese leader Xi Jinping. (Getty)

When Chinese leader Xi Jinping meets this Saturday in Singapore with Taiwan's president, Ma Ying-jeou, it will not be to fix China-Taiwan relations. That is probably just not possible at this point.

The summit is mostly about symbolism, and will likely be carefully stage-managed as a show of tentative easing of tensions. China's Xi and Taiwan's Ma will be meeting as "leaders" of their respective governments rather than as "presidents" — a distinction that sounds superficial but speaks to the extreme political sensitivities here.

For Ma, the goal is likely to establish a legacy of having improved Taiwan-China ties, which is unpopular in Taiwan but has been one of his top priorities. He leaves office in January (Taiwan's presidents are term-limited, and his are about up) and may see this as his place in the history books.

For Xi, there are probably a couple of goals. One is likely to cement the recent gains in China-Taiwan relations; the next Taiwanese government is likely to be led by the opposition Democratic Progressive Party, which is more skeptical of China.

Another important element here: Xi, since taking power himself in late 2012, has made China both more confrontational and more diplomatic toward its neighbors, alternately pressuring them in maritime territorial disputes while also meeting with foreign opposition figures less friendly to China. In other words, this is of a piece with Xi's efforts to reshape China as a more significant regional power.

In many ways, what makes this such a big deal is the fact that it's extremely politically difficult for either leader to meet with the other. Both are risking real backlashes at home — Xi, because he risks appearing to legitimize Taiwan's government, which Beijing considers a bunch of illegitimate rebels; and Ma, because this is so unpopular among Taiwan's voters and has really hurt his party's political support.

Tellingly, according to the New York Times, Ma has been requesting a meeting with Xi for some time, and was at first told no. "Mr. Xi must be looking to do Mr. Ma a favor, he has been asking for this for a long time," an unnamed Asian diplomat told the Times. So maybe it's possible that this is about Xi rewarding Ma for his pro-China policies.

What does this mean for the future of China-Taiwan relations?

Opposition leader Tsai Ing-wen (center), likely to be Taiwan's next president, with other members of the Democratic Progressive Party, which is more skeptical of China. (Getty)

The elephant in the room for this weekend's meeting will be Taiwan's upcoming elections this January, which China scholar Timothy S. Rich called "the most important in the democracy in nearly 20 years."

Ma's Kuomintang is expected to lose and be replaced by the Democratic Progressive Party, which generally leans toward declaring independence from China. It looks likely that DPP's Tsai Ing-wen is going to become Taiwan's next president — the country's first-ever woman leader. While Tsai has said she won't declare independence, it's assumed that she would not continue Ma's efforts of improving ties with China and could roll some of them back, particularly given maritime territorial disputes with the mainland. She has said she opposes this weekend's meeting.

A big question you see in coverage of the Ma-Xi meeting is whether this will help or hurt the Kuomintang party in the coming Taiwanese elections. And that matters: While the Kuomintang is all but certain to lose the presidency, it's not yet clear whether the party will lose its majority in the parliament. Some observers say that Ma's pro-China engagement will hurt his party in the coming vote, while others believe voters may recognize it as a historic moment. It's tough to say.

But whatever this means for the January election, it is certainly a historic moment in what is, even if it doesn't look like it, one of the world's longest-running civil wars. However and whenever the China-Taiwan dispute resolves, this will likely be remembered as, while not a turning point, an important landmark.

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