STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Leaders of China and Taiwan will meet this Saturday. It's the first time that's happened in more than six decades. The surprise meeting is in Singapore. And it comes just a couple of months before an election on Taiwan, which is separated from the Chinese mainland by water and by politics. NPR's Frank Langfitt is following the story from Shanghai. Hi, Frank.
FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: Hey. Good morning, Steve.
INSKEEP: How big a deal is this meeting?
LANGFITT: This is a big deal. I mean, it really struck me. You know, last time this sort of thing happened, you've got to go back to the '40s. And you're talking about people like Mao Tse-tung, obviously the founder of the People's Republic of China, and Chiang Kai-shek. He was the national leader at the time during the Chinese Civil War. Another thing that's really interesting about this is it's happening, as you were saying, as we're leading up to the Taiwanese elections. You know, the nationalists, they have made closer relations with the mainland kind of a cornerstone of their policy. But they're expected to lose pretty badly to the Democratic Progressive Party, which wants to stay separate from China.
INSKEEP: And I guess we should remember that China still claims Taiwan as part of China, wants it eventually to come back under Chinese control. But what does China want from this meeting?
LANGFITT: Well, it's a little hard to say 'cause the Chinese government is pretty opaque. But today in People's Daily - that's the state-run newspaper on their social, one of their social media accounts - they said that this is very much about the election and trying to reach out before the opposition takes over. And they were saying if the opposition does win, there's almost no chance for a meeting. So they see this sort of as a last window. Of course, it's interesting how this might play out in Taiwan. It's a little early to say, but Taiwanese voters, if they see this as an authoritarian state trying to influence a democratic election, there could be a backlash.
INSKEEP: Would you remind us how it is that China and Taiwan ended up with separate systems?
LANGFITT: Yeah, sure. It goes back to the Civil War. And you go to 1949. The Communist Party won. And Chiang Kai-shek had to go across the water to Taiwan, basically, and retreat. China became communist, of course. Taiwan eventually, over time, became democratic. And really, the Chinese hate to hear this, but it is a de facto independent country, even though most countries don't recognize it. China, of course, as you were pointing out, still sees it as a province and has threatened to reunify even by war. The U.S. is, of course, Taiwan's main protector, which is what makes this such a big global issue. And there's always been a big source of tension over the years between the U.S. and the mainland.
INSKEEP: Well, what does the United States think now that Taiwanese leaders are meeting the Chinese?
LANGFITT: The White House welcomed this but said we're going to have to wait and see what comes out of this meeting. And we're not expecting a lot or anything terribly solid. Over the years, the U.S. has generally just wanted the sides to get along and avoid war 'cause they certainly - the United States doesn't want to be drawn into a military conflict with China and generally would hope that this issue of reunification can just be put off for as long as possible.
INSKEEP: Although, there are other things going on. I'm looking at a map here, Frank Langfitt, and I see the island of Taiwan. It's off the coast of China. It's on the edge of this waterway called the South China Sea, which we've talked about so much because multiple countries, including China and the United States, are jostling over who controls it and who gets to send ships through it. How does this Taiwanese meeting fit into that, if at all?
LANGFITT: Well, I think it's - this is very much about mainland-Taiwanese relations. But you have to step back and see about everything that's going on in this region right now. There's a ton of action. China's relations in the region are changing. And China's become very aggressive with this island building campaign that we've done a lot of coverage on. And recently, of course - I guess it was just in the last week or two - the United States sent a destroyer past one of the islands. The Chinese protested and said it was sort of - we were - the United States was going into Chinese waters. Tomorrow, the U.S. defense secretary, that - Ash Carter - he's going to actually cruise with the Malaysian defense minister on the USS Theodore Roosevelt. That's an aircraft carrier that's nicknamed The Big Stick. So there's a lot of jockeying for position right now in the region, and the big two powers are of course the U.S. and China.
INSKEEP: Frank, thanks very much, as always.
LANGFITT: Happy to do it, Steve.
INSKEEP: That's NPR's Frank Langfitt in Shanghai.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.