The 81-second handshake between President Xi Jinping of China and President Ma Ying-jeou of Taiwan in Singapore last week was historic because it came after 66 years of hostility between the two sides. As the Taiwan Strait remains a key Asian faultline, any sign of amicability is important. It becomes more so when it is a shared gesture. That Beijing and Taipei chose Singapore as the venue of the meeting exemplifies the trust which they place in its good offices as a facilitative partner in bringing the two sides closer. Singapore played that role when it hosted landmark talks between their respective heads of semi-government bodies in 1993. Saturday's Xi-Ma summit helps to cement the city-state's diplomatic reputation as a neutral partner in China's and Taiwan's dealings with each other.
Yet, it would be premature to expect the presidential handshake to result in any immediate and concrete evolution of cross-strait relations. Neither side conceded anything substantial during talks, particularly over the interpretations of the crucial One China policy guiding their relations. The summit is unlikely to improve the electoral prospects of Mr Ma's Kuomintang party (KMT), which is trailing the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) in opinion polls for the upcoming presidential and legislative elections. Still, it is not improbable that the logic of detente inaugurated by the summit will temper the actions of the independence-leaning DPP should it come to power. But that remains to be seen. The KMT's cross-strait initiatives will have to operate within the agenda set by the DPP. And Beijing's influence in Taipei will be constrained by the domestic realities of Taiwanese politics.
Minimally, however, the Singapore summit affirms the status quo, and therefore pushes back the possibility of a violent resolution of the long tail of the Chinese civil war in 1949. Taiwanese, even those opposed to reunification with the mainland, would not wish to risk Chinese military retaliation by declaring independence. The Chinese, whose attempt to influence the democratic direction of Taiwanese politics through the show of military force was rebuffed in the closing years of the last century, have understood the importance of the status quo as well. Americans are satisfied with the results of their studied strategic ambiguity, which has prevented Taiwan's independence while keeping it as a part of a strategic chain of islands stretching from Japan to Indonesia that acts as a buffer against China's foray into the Pacific.
A larger point is that Mr Xi is making bold strategic moves in East Asia by improving relations with Japan, South Korea and now Taiwan. If he could also show similar statesmanship over the region's troublesome maritime disputes, China could contribute to Asia's security and stability.