Taipei — Taiwan's President Ma Ying-jeou will meet his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping in Singapore on Saturday - the first ever meeting between leaders of the two sides. Both said the talks would focus on relations across the Taiwan Straits.
China claims sovereignty over Taiwan and views the island as a breakaway province which will one day be reunited with the mainland. No peace treaty has ever been signed to formally end the civil war. But ties have improved since President Ma took office in 2008.
According to media reports, China threatens to use military force against Taiwan if it ever attempts to gain outright independence. Taiwanese spokesman Chen Yi-hsin said President Ma's aim was "to promote peace cross the Taiwan Strait and maintain status quo".
This meeting, less than three months before Taiwan's elections, is a sign of how concerned China is that the significantly improved ties of recent years could be jeopardised if the pro-independence opposition party's candidate becomes president. Opinion polls show Tsai Ing-wen is leading - a big worry for Beijing.
Ms Tsai has said she welcomes dialogue with Chinese leaders, but Beijing has refused to meet her, indicating it does not trust her. She was a minister in charge of developing policy toward mainland China under the previous administration, which angered Beijing by trying to work towards formal independence.
Mr Xi may believe he can sway Taiwanese voters but this could backfire. While some voters who want to maintain stable relations may heed his words, they may offend Taiwanese voters who are already worried that Beijing will have increasing influence over Taiwan if the candidate from President Ma's party is elected. and this could hurt, rather than help, the party favoured by Beijing.
The two leaders are expected to handle the meeting in a delicate manner. Mr Ma's office has emphasised no agreements will be signed and no joint statement will be issued. China's official Xinhua news agency said the two sides would "exchange views on promoting the peaceful development of cross-Strait relations".
"Cross-strait issues have national interest at stake and should go beyond political considerations," said Cheng Yun-peng, spokesman for the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), which traditionally favors independence, and is loathed by China. "They should not be used as part of election operations," Cheng told a news conference.
"However, the current period coincides with Taiwan's election and President Ma picks this sensitive time for meetings. How can people not think of this as a political operation intended to affect the election?"
Chiang Kai-shek's Nationalists fled to Taiwan following their defeat by Mao Zedong's Communists at the end of the Chinese civil war. Since then Taiwan has been self-ruled. But Beijing still regards Taiwan as part of China.