Only the people of Taiwan can decide its future and will do so in elections in January, the island’s opposition leader and presidential frontrunner said on Sunday, as China’s top newspaper warned peace was at risk if it opted for independence.

A day after Chinese President Xi Jinping and Taiwan President Ma Ying-jeou held historic talks in Singapore, Tsai Ing-wen, leader of Taiwan’s independence-leaning Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), said the leaders’ meeting had done nothing to make Taiwan’s people feel safer.

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

“Only the majority public opinion on Jan. 16 can decide Taiwan’s future and cross-strait relations,” Tsai wrote, referring to ties with the mainland.

At the meeting in neutral Singapore, the first get-together of leaders of the two sides since China’s civil war ended in 1949, Xi told Ma they must not let proponents of Taiwan’s independence split them.

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Activists protest against the Singapore meeting between Taiwan’s President Ma Ying-jeou and China’s President Xi Jinping outside the Ministry of Economic Affairs in Taipei, Taiwan, November 7, 2015. Photo: Reuters/Pichi Chuang

Ma in return called for mutual respect for each other’s systems and said Taiwan people were concerned about mainland missiles pointing their way.

Tsai said Ma’s performance had angered many people in Taiwan, and what he did was not a representation of mainstream public opinion.

“As a nation’s leader, President Ma did not make his people proud or feel safe. Instead, he created more anxiety,” she wrote.

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. Both agree there is “one China” but agree to disagree on the interpretation.

Beijing views self-ruled and proudly democratic Taiwan as a renegade province, to be bought under its control by force if necessary, and has warned that moves towards formal independence could stoke conflict.

Speaking to reporters on the flight back to Taipei late on Saturday, Ma said while he was not satisfied with Xi’s response on security and military issues, at least a dialogue had now begun.

“This gathering today, if you want to speak about achievements, the most important achievement is that the leaders across the Taiwan Strait finally met and were willing to discuss related issues,” he said.

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A pro-Taiwan activist attempts to burn portraits of Taiwan’s President Ma Ying-jeou (R) and Chinese President Xi Jinping while protesting against the upcoming Singapore meeting between Ma and Xi, outside Taipei Songshan airport, November 7, 2015. Photo: Reuters.

 Fierce and Frightening

In a commentary, the Communist Party’s official People’s Daily said the two leaders sitting together showed a desire not to let the “tragedy of history” repeat itself nor to let the fruits of peaceful development be lost.

Progress over the past seven years – referring to the rule of the China-friendly Ma – has been possible due to a joint political will to oppose Taiwan independence and accept there is “one China”, albeit it with different interpretations, the paper said.

“If this ‘magic cudgel’ did not exist, the boat of peace would encounter a fierce and frightening storm, or even flip over completely,” it wrote.

“Compatriots on both sides of the Taiwan Strait must join together and resolutely oppose the Taiwan independence forces and their separatist activities,” the newspaper added.

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.

One source with ties to the leadership in Beijing said China was not counting on the meeting to help the Nationalists win the presidential elections, but hoped it would at least prevent them from disintegrating.

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Chinese President Xi Jinping shakes hands with Taiwan’s President Ma Ying-jeou during a summit in Singapore November 7, 2015. Photo: Reuters/Edgar Su.

“If the DPP controls the legislature and amended the constitution (formally) declaring independence, the mainland would be in a very difficult position,” the source said.

In 2005, China enacted an “anti-secession law” that allows it to use force on Taiwan if deemed necessary.

Previous Chinese attempts to influence Taiwan’s elections have backfired.

In 1996, then-Chinese President Jiang Zemin ordered missile tests and war games in the seas around Taiwan to try to intimidate voters not to back Lee Teng-hui, who China believed was moving the island closer to formal independence. Lee won by a landslide.

By Faith Hung and Ben Blanchard. Additional reporting by Benjmain Kang Lim in Beijing and J.R. Wu in Taipei; Editing by Robert Birsel.

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