REUTERS - Leaders of political rivals Taiwan and China met on Saturday for the first time in more than 60 years for talks that come amid rising anti-Beijing sentiment on the self-ruled democratic island and weeks ahead of elections there.
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The talks between China President Xi Jinping and Taiwan President Ma Ying-jeou, the first such meeting since China's civil war ended in 1949, are being held at a luxury hotel in the neutral venue of Singapore.
Both men shook hands and smiled in front of a mass of journalists, Xi wearing a red tie, the color of the Communist Party, and Ma a blue one, the color of his Nationalist Party.
Moving into a meeting room, Xi, speaking first and sitting opposite Ma, said Chinese people on the two sides of the Taiwan Strait had the ability and wisdom to solve their own problems.
"No force can pull us apart," Xi said. "We are one family."
In response, Ma said he was determined to promote peace across the Taiwan Strait and that relations should be based on sincerity, wisdom and patience.
Ma also asked Xi indirectly to respect Taiwan's democracy.
"Both sides should respect each other's values and way of life," he said.
China's Nationalists, also known as the Kuomintang (KMT), retreated to Taiwan after losing the civil war to the Communists, who are still in charge in Beijing.
The mainland has never renounced the use of force to bring what it considers a breakaway province under its control.
The meeting comes ahead of presidential and parliamentary elections on Taiwan which the independence-leaning Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) is favored to win, something Beijing is desperate to avoid.
While bilateral trade, investment and tourism have blossomed - particularly since Ma and his KMT took power in 2008 - there is deep suspicion on both sides and no progress has been made on any sort of political settlement.
No agreements are expected in what is seen as a highly symbolic get-together in Singapore, a largely ethnic Chinese city-state that has maintained good ties with both for decades.
Protocol problems loom large for democratic Taiwan and autocratic China.
China's Taiwan Affairs Office said the two men would address each other as "mister," presumably to avoid calling each other "president," as neither officially recognizes the other as head of state.
Further underscoring the sensitivities in China, state television only showed Xi's comments live, cutting away when Ma began to speak, prompting a flurry of complaints on Chinese social media about censorship.
The meeting comes as Xi hopes to cement his place among China's pantheon of great leaders and Ma, stepping down next year due to term limits, tries to shape his legacy marred by growing anti-Beijing feeling in Taiwan.
"At this historic juncture of a meeting between leaders from both sides of Taiwan Strait, we genuinely hope that both sides can show sincerity, demonstrate goodwill, meet each other half way and confront their difficulties," China's official People's Daily wrote on Saturday.
While China is laudatory, concerns have been raised in Taiwan.
DDP leader and presidential candidate Tsai Ing-wen, in a statement on her Facebook page, said the meeting could only be considered historic if it was able to express respect for Taiwan's democracy and that there should be no preconditions for the peaceful and stable development of ties with China.
"We will wait and see if this can be achieved. I want to again remind President Ma that if he cannot do this then the people of Taiwan will be very disappointed," she said.
Both sides will hold separate news conferences after a short closed-door meeting, followed by dinner before Ma flies back to Taiwan later in the day.
"It will be of huge symbolic importance, but will not be a 'game-changer,' as Taiwanese voters are wary of the mainland's rising influence over the island", Yoel Sano, head of political risk with BMI Research, said of the meeting.
Ma will present Xi bottles of spirits made on two groups of islands just off the mainland that have been occupied by Taiwan forces since the end of the civil war.
He will also present Xi with a ceramic sculpture of a Taiwan blue magpie perched on a leafy green branch as a gift for their first meeting, a bird unique to the island, Taiwan's presidential office said.
Chinese state media said the leaders would eat their dinner at a round table, presumably to avoid the thorny protocol issue of who would sit at the head of it.