The presidents of China and Taiwan reached across decades of Cold War estrangement and rivalry for a historic handshake Saturday, before exchanging warm words in the first summit since the two sides’ traumatic 1949 split.

Chinese President Xi Jinping and Taiwan leader Ma Ying-jeou shook hands and smiled broadly as they met in Singapore, in a scene considered unthinkable until recently.

Chinese President Xi Jinping (L) and Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou smile as they enter the room at the Shangri-la Hotel where they are to meet in Singapore on November 7, 2015. Photo: AFP/Pool.

They later sat down across a table from each other, with Xi praising the summit as opening a “historic chapter in our relations” and repeating China’s oft-expressed desire for eventual reunification.

“The development of cross-strait relations over the past 66 years show that no matter what kind of winds and rains are experienced by compatriots on the two sides, no matter how long divisions last, there is no power that can separate us,” Xi said.

“We are brothers connected by flesh even if our bones are broken, we are a family whose blood is thicker than water.”

No agreements or joint statements are expected from the encounter between two sides that still refuse to formally recognise each other’s legitimacy, and the meeting’s lasting significance remains to be seen.

But the encounter is undeniably historic: the previous occasion was in 1945, when Communist revolutionary leader Mao Zedong met with China’s nationalist President Chiang Kai-shek in a failed reconciliation attempt.

The later Communist takeover forced Chiang’s armies and about two million followers to flee to Taiwan, then a backwater island province, leaving a national rupture that has preoccupied both sides ever since.

“Even though this is the first meeting, we feel like old friends,” Ma told Xi.

“Behind us is history stretching for 60 years. Now before our eyes there are fruits of conciliation instead of confrontation.”

Warming ties

After their split, a hostile standoff ensued for decades, and the Taiwan Strait between them remains one of the world’s last remaining Cold War-era flashpoints.

But business and investment ties eventually flowered, despite the official hostility.

Since taking office in 2008, Ma’s Beijing-friendly policies have pushed this to new heights, yielding a tourism boom, the opening of flight routes, more than 20 trade agreements — and Saturday’s summit.

But large numbers of people in Taiwan, a rambunctious democracy, are deeply uneasy at being drawn too closely into the Communist-ruled mainland orbit and reunification remains a distant goal.

Around 100 angry demonstrators attempted to storm Taiwan’s parliament building in Taipei overnight to denounce the summit.

They were stopped by police but a dozen of them staged a sit-in into Saturday morning.

Another protest was held at the capital’s airport as Ma departed, with demonstrators burning images of the two leaders. The likenesses included slogans calling Xi a “Chinese dictator” and Ma a “traitor”.

Police said 27 people were arrested at the airport.

Mister, Mister

China and Taiwan still refuse to formally recognise each other’s legitimacy, and Xi and Ma tread a delicate line for the summit.

Neither were expected to address each other as “president”, instead using “mister”.

Lingering suspicion of Taiwan, which Beijing sees as a renegade province to be taken back by force if necessary, also surfaced in China’s coverage of the event.

As soon as Xi finished speaking, Chinese state broadcaster CCTV’s main news channel cut away to a studio discussion in which footage of Ma is shown as part of the studio backdrop — but with no sound.

The two sides were set to hold separate back-to-back press conferences afterwards.

Further reflecting the wide gulf between them, Ma will conduct Taiwan’s briefing, while a lower-ranking official — pointedly not Xi himself — was expected to led China’s.

Ma has expressed hope the meeting will be a step toward normalising cross-strait relations, and says it could boost Taiwan’s international profile.

Ma told Xi that both sides should exercise “mutual respect.”

The island has been marginalised by Beijing’s insistence that other countries deny recognition to the Taipei government, breeding resentment among citizens.

Politics play a role

Opponents at home accuse Ma, who leaves office soon, of using the summit to boost his ruling Kuomintang’s (KMT) chances at presidential elections in January, which the party is tipped to lose.

China had repeatedly denied Ma’s attempts to secure a face-to-face meeting, prompting questions over why the green light was given now.

Many analysts say China also wants to boost the ailing KMT, which it favours over the more independence-minded opposition.

But they warn the strategy could backfire with anxious Taiwanese voters if Beijing is seen meddling in the election.

The summit is also interpreted by some as a bid by Beijing to play the peacemaker and draw attention away from its aggressive expansionism in the South China Sea that has caused unease throughout the region.

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