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Chinese, Taiwanese Leaders To Meet In Singapore


China calls it the great goal of national unification, and this weekend could see a great step closer to it. China and Taiwan have been in a standoff since 1949 when the Chinese civil war ended and the two sides battling for control settled into their respective territories. Mao Zedong's Communists took mainland China. Chiang Kai-shek's Nationalists retreated to Taiwan. Well, for the first time since then, the leaders of China and Taiwan will meet. Xi Jingping and Taiwan's Ma Ying-jeou will sit down Saturday in Singapore, neutral ground, and they've agreed not to use the title president.

Shelley Rigger is an expert in East Asia politics at Davidson College. Welcome to the program.


SIEGEL: After 66 years, how big is this that the two presidents will be sitting down together?

RIGGER: It might be pretty big, but it may also be a little bit disappointing. The Taiwanese side has already pretty much put the word out not to expect any big deliverables out of this meeting. Nonetheless, just the fact that the two men are meeting face-to-face is a really big step in a new direction.

SIEGEL: The meeting comes at a time of Chinese muscle flexing, for example, in the South China Sea. But this seems to be a very pragmatic move by Xi Jingping of China. What explains that?

RIGGER: One way to understand it is that Taiwan has a presidential election and legislative elections coming up in in January. And I think the PRC is pretty sure that the party that is somewhat less favorable to their position is likely to win the elections and come to power.

SIEGEL: The PRC stands for the People's Republic of China. This is mainland China.

RIGGER: That's right. So president Xi may be hoping to make some progress on improving cross-strait relations, maybe give the candidate from President Ma's party, the party that is more favorable toward the PRC's point of view, a little bit of leverage or momentum going into the elections.

SIEGEL: I want you to explain something to people who aren't very familiar with China policy. Here we have two Chinese governments, and at least for the record, both of them follow a one-China policy that each one is the government of China. It would seem that the most realistic description of what exists is the one that's absolutely politically intolerable, that there are two countries.

RIGGER: Yep. That's the crux of the matter.

SIEGEL: And if I were a resident of either Taipei or Beijing, you think I'm probably happy about this. It means the world is a little bit safer. Or does it matter much?

RIGGER: I think in Beijing, you're definitely happy about it because it shows that someone in Taiwan is still eager to shake hands with a PRC leader. I think in Taiwan, it really depends upon your political leanings. I think for a lot of people in Taiwan, this is a - kind of a scary moment because there is the possibility that President Ma could lead president Xi to think that the relationship has progressed beyond what most Taiwanese are comfortable with.

On the other hand, though, no one in Taiwan wants conflict with the mainland either. So the fact that the mainland leaders are willing to make a concession like this is not necessarily at all bad.

SIEGEL: I'm just curious. Do you have any idea if theses two men - if they're not going to call each other president, do you have any notion what they'll call each other?

RIGGER: Yeah. Apparently they're just going to use the leader of probably the People's Republic of China or probably nothing, actually.

SIEGEL: (Laughter).

RIGGER: And in previous interactions that have been complicated in this way, they have just gone with the baseline Mr.

SIEGEL: Professor Rigger, thanks for talking with us today.

RIGGER: It's my pleasure. Thank you.

SIEGEL: That's Shelley Rigger, a professor of East Asia politics at Davidson College and the author of the book "Why Taiwan Matters." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.