IN THE dying days of China’s civil war, Mao Zedong’s Communist forces chased the remnants of Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek’s army from their hideouts in south-west China. Mao had declared the founding of a new “people’s republic” a month earlier. He had only some mopping up to do, and the vast mainland would be his. Chiang, however, denied Mao a complete victory: he fled to the island of Taiwan, where he kept up the pretence that he still ruled China. The two sides never declared a ceasefire. Although there is no fighting today, the unfinished business of 1949 remains one of the world’s biggest potential sources of conflict between two nuclear-armed powers: China, and Taiwan’s only military backer, America.
On the face of it, then, the surprising news that Ma Ying-jeou, the president of Taiwan, will meet his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping, on November 7th, is cause for celebration. It will be the first such meeting between the two sides since Chiang’s flight. Only two decades ago the threat was war, as China fired missiles in the Taiwan Strait and America sailed aircraft-carriers close to the island to ward off China. Today Mr Ma is preparing for talks and a dinner with Mr Xi in a luxury hotel in Singapore (see article). Yet, although that is undoubtedly progress, dangers still lurk.

Ma’s gamble
The meeting comes as Taiwan is campaigning for elections in January. The constitution obliges Mr Ma to step down next year but his party, the Kuomintang (KMT), which once ruled all of China, appears to be heading for a humiliating defeat in the presidential vote and possibly in simultaneous polls for the legislature. The risk is that Mr Ma may make a desperate last-minute effort to revive the KMT’s battered fortunes by playing the peacemaker, while lacking the gumption to stand up for his island state.
To raise China’s expectations of Taiwanese pliancy would be bad for Taiwan, and for peace in the region. Mr Ma’s successor is likely to be Tsai Ing-wen, who is far more sceptical about China’s intentions. Some members of her Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) even want the island to declare its permanent separation from China. Inevitably, China abhors such a notion; when the DPP ruled Taiwan, between 2000 and 2008, Chinese officials refused to deal with the government.
If Mr Ma is not to fuel cross-strait tensions, he needs to make it clear to Mr Xi that the search for lasting peace must involve the DPP. He should advise Mr Xi to meet Ms Tsai—if she wins—without preconditions. Insisting, as Communist Party officials do, that the DPP must first embrace the notion of “one China” is a recipe for added tension in a region already seething with it (see article).
To his credit, Mr Ma has put a strong message across in the past. He has stipulated, for instance, that for Taiwan to contemplate unification, the mainland must first become democratic. That is because the people of Taiwan, who have enjoyed democracy since the KMT gave up its authoritarian rule in the 1990s, will never trust a deal with a one-party dictatorship. Mr Ma has also asked China to stop threatening Taiwan. He is right on this point, too. Even during his own rule, which has been marked by a rapid increase in cross-strait exchanges, including the first regular direct flights and a boom in visits to the island by Chinese tourists, China has been building up its military deployments on its side of the water. It has hundreds of ballistic missiles pointing at the island.
In the interests of his country, Mr Ma must be resolute. He will finish his presidency with rock-bottom approval ratings. Standing firm would at least add to his legacy.