Florence–In what on many levels seems like risky business, the presidents of the People’s Republic of China and Taiwan, still officially the Republic of China, are set to meet tomorrow for the first time since the Communist forces drove the Nationalists from the mainland 66 years ago.

Guess which one has the advantage.

The meeting, to take place in Singapore, is filled with ironies. The Communist Party of China, victors in the civil war that brought it to power in 1949, were bitter enemies of the Nationalist Party, which lost and whose current chief representative governs Taiwan. China’s current president, Ji Xinping, might like to make nice to Taiwan, which China wants to unite with the mainland. It’s hard to see how Ji can pull in all of his claws, given his current campaign to take over smaller islands and even submerged reefs in the seas off China’s coast, against evidence that they belong to someone else.

Of course, uniting Taiwan with the mainland is Beijing policy dogma so it’s easy to see why Ji wants to cozy up to the ruling party. Taiwanese elections are taking place in three months and the Nationalists are set to lose to the opposition Progressive Democratic Party. Maybe Ji can sway the vote. Or maybe he can try to scare the Taiwanese. In 2005, China formally asserted its right to invade Taiwan if the island made moves toward independence.

Ji might also be afraid that Taiwan, if the opposition wins the next elections, will drop the Nationalist’s old claims to South China Sea islands, undermining Beijing’s assertion that the outcroppings have always been their own.

What’s in it for Taiwan’s president Ma Ying-jeou? The Nationalists are formally in favor of One China, including Taiwan, since they once actually ruled the whole thing. Ma has taken steps to link Taiwan more closely to Beijing through trade and travel. He appears to have the backing of business interests that see Taiwan’s future prosperity tied to mainland China.

It’s the opposition that is wary. There are political reasons to be concerned. Since China regained Hong Kong from the British in 1997, politics has become more and more tightly controlled by Beijing. Taiwan is a full, free-wheeling democracy. The Chinese Communist Party, which despite abandoning the economic aspect of communism, is still devoted to one-party, authoritarian rule. Voters recently ousted some Nationalist politicians in local elections over the issue of Ma’s embrace of China.

Taiwan has been able to thrive in the ambiguous shadows of semi-independence, with the freedoms they have become used to, including the ability to kick out rulers they don’t like. With a  politically, militarily and economically assertive China, that era may come to an end.

We’ll see what message Xi delivers in Singapore.

Did China stage a mock invasion?

Will Taiwan droop its claim to South China Sea islands?

Why meet now?

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