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China's Xi and Taiwan's Ma go Dutch in historic dinner in Singapore
[HONG KONG] When Chinese President Xi Jinping and Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou finish dinner after their historic summit on Saturday in Singapore, they will split the bill.
Going Dutch illustrates the delicate protocol balance the leaders must strike to maintain their uneasy peace 66 years after the civil war that left their peoples divided. In it, Mr Xi must avoid elevating Mr Ma's stature to that of an equal, while Mr Ma must avoid giving the appearance he is somehow subservient.
Every word, every move counts. To preserve neutrality and avoid conferring any legitimacy on the other's government, the two leaders will address each other as "mister" rather than president.
They'll shake hands for the cameras, but avoid the sort of joint press briefing leaders usually hold after meeting. And they'll have a low-key dinner before splitting the bill, according to an official with knowledge of the plan.
"People will look carefully at who proffers his hand first, who makes the first move forward to shake hands," said William Stanton, director of the Centre for Asia Policy at the National Tsing Hua University in Taiwan.
"Do they have a hug? Who initiates? What's the body language? Does Xi frown? Does Ma look at his feet? Do they stare at each other directly? This thing is going to be analysed to death."
For the leaders, the meeting - two years in the making via painstaking negotiations - presents an opportunity to reduce tensions. It's also fraught with peril as they navigate the diplomatic limbo of their "one-China" principle. Both sides acknowledge being part of one country, but disagree about what that means.
Mr Ma's Kuomintang, or Nationalist party, has never acknowledged that its 1949 civil war defeat made the Communist Party the rightful rulers of the world's most populous nation. The Communist Party in turn has never acknowledged Taiwan's right to rule itself.
Each side to this day carefully fights any official word or action that might give anyone the impression either is wrong. China insists on listing Taiwan as a Chinese province in all official maps and documents.
It blocks the island's participation in international forums or allows it to join only as "Chinese Taipei," and opposes economic or trade agreements with other countries. Such sensitivities have tripped up Taiwan's efforts to join the new China-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank.
The venue - Singapore - was carefully chosen. The Southeast Asian country, with its Chinese-speaking majority, hosted envoys from both sides during a ground-breaking meeting in 1993. Mr Ma will travel to meet Mr Xi because the Chinese president was already scheduled for an official visit to the city-state.
"For all the photo opportunities and KMT spin, there is no chance that Xi will let Ma outshine him in this meeting and thus claim to have held the initiative in Ma's hands," said Steve Tsang, a senior fellow at the University of Nottingham's China Policy Institute. "We will see how this unfolds soon enough."
The talks will cover topics ranging from cross-strait security to Taiwan's domestic affairs, going by Mr Ma's comments and those of other officials. The dinner on Saturday will be "casual," Mr Ma said at a briefing on Thursday.
His wife won't attend and he'll leave the lapel pin with Taiwan's flag behind. Mr Ma will leave for the airport shortly after the closed-door affair, according to the official with knowledge of the arrangements.
The first 10 minutes of the one-hour summit, which starts at 3pm, will be open to media, the official said, after which the pair will talk in private. There will be separate briefings by the two sides afterward.
"It goes back to the old battle between the PRC and the ROC over who really represents China," Mr Stanton, a former US envoy to Taiwan, said, using shorthand for China's and Taiwan's official names.
"Whoever's the host is the most senior person. With all of this symbolism, Ma doesn't want to do anything to belittle his dignity as the president of the ROC."
Mr Ma said the discussions won't produce any "secret deals or promises" and the two would focus on a way to create a mechanism for regular talks between leaders across the strait.
"We will tell Mr Xi Taiwan's current situation, so that he can better understand and take in full consideration when formulating cross-strait policies," he said on Thursday.
The meeting will also give the men the chance to size each other up in person, even if Mr Ma is on the way out of office. Taiwan will elect a new president in January and Mr Ma cannot run again.
"I have not met him yet, so I don't have a first impression of him," Mr Ma said. "Once I do, I will tell you."