China President Xi and Taiwan President Ma to go Dutch at historic dinner in Singapore

China's Xi (right) must avoid elevating Taiwan's Ma's stature to that of an equal, while Ma must avoid giving the appearance that he is subservient.
China's Xi (right) must avoid elevating Taiwan's Ma's stature to that of an equal, while Ma must avoid giving the appearance that he is subservient. PHOTO: REUTERS

TAIPEI (BLOOMBERG) - When Chinese President Xi Jinping and Taiwan President Ma Ying-jeou finish dinner after their historic summit on Saturday (Nov 7) in Singapore, they will split the bill.

Going Dutch illustrates the delicate protocol balance the leaders must strike to maintain their uneasy peace 66 years after the civil war that left their peoples divided. Xi must avoid elevating Ma's stature to that of an equal, while Ma must avoid giving the appearance that he is somehow subservient.

Every word, every move counts. To preserve neutrality and avoid conferring any legitimacy on the other's government, the two leaders will address each other as "mister" rather than "president".

They will shake hands for the cameras, but avoid the sort of joint press briefing leaders usually hold after meeting.

And they will have a low-key dinner together before splitting the bill, according to an official with knowledge of the plan.

"People will look carefully at who proffers his hand first, who makes the first move forward to shake hands," said William Stanton, director of the Centre for Asia Policy at the National Tsing Hua University in Taiwan.

"Do they have a hug? Who initiates? What's the body language? Does Xi frown? Does Ma look at his feet? Do they stare at each other directly? This thing is going to be analysed to death."

'ONE CHINA'

For the leaders, the meeting - two years in the making via painstaking negotiations - presents an opportunity to reduce tensions. It's also fraught with peril as they navigate the diplomatic limbo of their "one-China" principle. Both sides acknowledge being part of China, but disagree about what that means.

Ma's Kuomintang, or Nationalist party, has never acknowledged that its 1949 civil war defeat made the Communist Party the rightful rulers of the world's most populous nation. The Communist Party in turn has never acknowledged Taiwan's right to rule itself.

Each side to this day carefully fights any official word or action that might give anyone the impression either is wrong.

China insists on listing Taiwan as a Chinese province in all official maps and documents. It blocks the island's participation in international forums or allows it to join only as "Chinese Taipei," and opposes economic or trade agreements with other countries. 

SINGAPORE HOSTS

The venue - Singapore - was carefully chosen. The country with its Chinese-speaking majority hosted envoys from both sides during a ground-breaking meeting in 1993. Ma will travel to meet Xi as the Chinese president was already scheduled for an official visit to the city state.

"For all the photo opportunities and KMT spin, there is no chance that Xi will let Ma outshine him in this meeting and thus claim to have held the initiative in Ma's hands," said Steve Tsang, a senior fellow at the University of Nottingham's China Policy Institute. "We will see how this unfolds soon enough."

The talks will cover topics ranging from cross-strait security to Taiwan's domestic affairs, going by Ma's comments and those of other officials.

The dinner on Saturday will be "casual," Ma said at a briefing on Thursday. It will be a closed-door affair and Ma will leave shortly afterward for the airport, according to the official with knowledge of the arrangements.

SEPARATE BRIEFINGS

The first ten minutes of the one-hour summit, which starts at 3pm, will be open to the media, they said, after which the two will talk in private.

There will be separate briefings afterward: China's briefing will be hosted by Zhang Zhijun, head of the Taiwan Affairs Office, according to the official Xinhua news agency.

"It goes back to the old battle between the PRC and the ROC over who really represents China," Stanton said, using the acronyms for China and Taiwan. "Whoever's the host is the most senior person. With all of this symbolism, Ma doesn't want to do anything to belittle his dignity as the president of the ROC."

Ma has said the discussion will not produce any "secret deals or promises" and the two will focus on a way to create a mechanism for regular talks between leaders across the strait.

"We will tell Mr Xi Taiwan's current situation so that he can better understand and take in full consideration when formulating cross-strait policies," he said during Thursday's briefing.

The meeting will also give the men the chance to size each other up in person, even if Ma is on the way out of office. Taiwan will elect a new president in January and Ma cannot run again.

"I have not met him yet, so I don't have a first impression of him," Ma said. "Once I do, I will tell you."