China, Taiwan leaders join hands at historic summit

Singapore - The leaders of China and Taiwan reached across decades of Cold War-era estrangement and rivalry for a historic handshake on Saturday before exchanging warm words in the first summit since the two sides' traumatic 1949 split.

China's President Xi Jinping and Taiwan's President Ma Ying-jeou shook hands for more than a minute and smiled for a mass of reporters before their talks in Singapore, in a scene considered unthinkable until recently.

They later sat down across a table from each other, with Xi praising the summit as opening a "historic chapter in our relations" and repeating China's oft-expressed desire for eventual reunification.

"We are brothers connected by flesh even if our bones are broken, we are a family whose blood is thicker than water," Xi said.

"The development of cross-strait relations over the past 66 years show that no matter what kind of winds and rains are experienced by compatriots on the two sides, no matter how long divisions last, there is no power that can separate us." Despite the apparent warmth, the hour-long meeting's lasting significance remains to be seen.

No agreements appear to have been reached between two sides that still refuse to formally recognise each other's legitimacy.

But the encounter is undeniably historic: The previous occasion was in 1945, when Communist revolutionary leader Mao Zedong met with China's nationalist president Chiang Kai-shek in a failed reconciliation attempt.

The later Communist takeover forced Chiang's armies and about two million followers to flee to Taiwan, then a backwater island province, leaving a national rupture that has preoccupied both sides ever since.

"Even though this is the first meeting, we feel like old friends," Ma told Xi.

"Behind us is history stretching for 60 years. Now before our eyes there are fruits of conciliation instead of confrontation."

In a subsequent press conference, Ma said he proposed the establishment of a hotline between to the two sides and that Xi responded positively.

He also raised issues sensitive to Taiwan's people, including the arsenal of Chinese missiles aimed at Taiwan, and China's policy of marginalising the island diplomatically.

"We hope these things do not continue," Ma said, adding that he told Xi both sides should exercise "mutual respect". Xi did not give a briefing, leaving that to a lower-ranking official.

Ma has expressed hope the meeting could be a step towards normalising cross-strait relations, but no further plans for closer contact emerged.

J. Michael Cole, a China expert at the University of Nottingham, said the summit dealt in generalities, familiar talking points, and changes nothing.

He noted also that Ma will be out of office soon, and his ruling party is expected to lose in January polls to an opposition that distrusts China.

"It's historic, because it's the first (meeting), but I would not go as far as to say that it's very important," he said.

The Taiwan Strait remains one of the world's last remaining Cold War-era flashpoints, but despite that business and investment ties have flowered.

Since taking office in 2008, Ma's Beijing-friendly policies have borne new fruit including a boom in Chinese visitors to the island, the opening of flight routes, more than 20 trade agreements - and Saturday's summit.

But many in Taiwan, a rambunctious democracy, are deeply uneasy at being drawn too closely into the Communist-ruled mainland orbit, and reunification remains a distant prospect.

Hundreds of opponents of the summit massed outside Ma's office in Taipei on Saturday, condemning the cordial exchange between the leaders and infuriated by Xi's comments that the two sides are "a family" that can never be divided.

There were also overnight demonstrations at Taiwan's parliament building, and 27 people were arrested as protesters scuffled with police and tried to burn images of the two leaders at the capital's airport as Ma departed.

China and Taiwan still refuse to formally recognise each other's legitimacy, a state of affairs in plain view at the summit.

Neither addressed each other as "president" - which would legitimise their governments - instead using "mister".

Beijing sees Taiwan as a renegade province and this sentiment surfaced in China's coverage of the event.

After Xi finished addressing Ma in live footage of the meeting's opening, Chinese state broadcaster CCTV cut away to a studio discussion as video of Ma speaking rolled, but with no sound.

Opponents at home accuse Ma, who leaves office soon, of using the summit to boost his ruling Kuomintang's (KMT) flagging chances at the coming presidential polls.

Some analysts feel China also finally granted the meeting, long sought by Ma, to help boost the KMT, which Beijing favours over the more independence-minded opposition.

But they warn the strategy could backfire with anxious Taiwanese voters if China is seen meddling in the election.

"This meeting will remain a historic moment but everything will depend on the result of the elections in Taiwan," said Jean-Pierre Cabestan of Hong Kong Baptist University.

"Xi's very pro-reunification language... risks alarming more than one person on the island."