Chinese President Xi Jinping will hold talks with his counterpart on neighboring Taiwan on Saturday, the first meeting of leaders from the two rivals since the Chinese civil war ended in 1949, coinciding with rising anti-China sentiment on Taiwan.
Both sides said the leaders would discuss cross-strait ties at the unexpected meeting in Singapore, weeks ahead of elections in January which the pro-China Nationalist Party, or Kuomintang (KMT), is likely to lose to the opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), which traditionally favors independence from China.
Taiwan President Ma Ying-jeou, who steps down next year due to term limits, has made improving economic links with China a key policy since he took office in 2008. He has signed landmark business and tourism deals, though there has been no progress in resolving their political differences.
DPP presidential candidate Tsai Ing-wen said the announcement was out of the blue.
"I believe people across the country, like me, felt very surprised," she said in prepared remarks to reporters. "… to let the people know in such a hasty and chaotic manner is damaging to Taiwan's democracy."
Political experts said China could be working to shape the result of the elections by trying to show that ties would continue to improve if Taiwan remains ruled by the KMT.
DPP spokesman Cheng Yun-peng said the timing of the meeting was suspect. "How can people not think of this as a political operation intended to affect the election?" he said.
Some said it could backfire, given increasing anti-China protests, especially among the young. In what was seen as a backlash against creeping dependence on China, the KMT was trounced in local elections last year. Younger Taiwanese in particular worry about Beijing's influence.
"Any meeting between the leaders of China and Taiwan would be delicate, but the coming Taiwanese elections add to the political risks for both sides," said John Ciorciari, an assistant professor at the Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy at the University of Michigan.
"Ma Ying-jeou and Xi Jinping are doubtlessly concerned that their summit will help Tsai Ing-wen expand her lead as the Taiwanese electorate drifts away from the mainland."
Small groups of protesters gathered outside Taiwan's parliament on Wednesday.
Communist China deems proudly democratic Taiwan a breakaway province to be taken back, by force if necessary, particularly if it makes moves toward formal independence.
China, which has repeatedly said it won't interfere in the election, will nonetheless be sending a message that good ties with Taiwan can only continue if the island's leaders accept China's bottom line, which is that there is only "one China".
The Communists and Nationalists both agree there is "one China" but agree to disagree on the interpretation. Taiwan has been self-ruled since Chiang Kai-shek's Nationalists fled to the island following their defeat by Mao Zedong's Communists at the end of the Chinese civil war.
Support from "all walks of life"
Ma's office said in a statement the purpose of his trip was to "maintain the status quo". He would not sign any agreements, nor issue any joint statements with China, it added.
Zhang Zhijun, head of China's Taiwan Affairs Office, said the leaders would "exchange views on promoting the peaceful development of cross-Taiwan Straits relations", according to a statement carried by the official Xinhua news agency.
He called the meeting a milestone that would help manage conflict and would gain "wide support from all walks of life across the Strait and the international community".
The two leaders were expected to have dinner after their meeting and will address each other as "mister", Zhang said, presumably to avoid calling each other Mr. President, as neither officially recognizes the other as head of state.
The meeting came about after Chinese and Taiwanese officials met in the Chinese city of Guangzhou last month, he added.
Speaking to Reuters in an interview on October 1, Ma said Taiwan was not ready to discuss unification with China. While economic and social gaps between the two were narrowing, their political differences remained wide.
Ma has made no public comment since the midnight announcement from his office but will hold a news briefing on Thursday.
Zheng Zhenqing at Beijing's Tsinghua University Institute of Taiwan Studies said it was wrong to link the meeting directly to the election but that it did underscore a determination to get Taiwan to recognize the "one China" principle.
"It's being made on consideration for the long term, to clearly show that as long as Taiwan's leaders accept there is one China, then leaders from both sides can meet," he said. "This has to be the basis of the relationship."
White House spokesman Josh Earnest told reporters it was too early to call the meeting a turning point.
"We would certainly welcome steps that are taken on both sides of the Taiwan Strait to try to reduce tensions and improve cross-strait relations," Earnest said. "But, you know, we'll have to see what actually comes out of the meeting."
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.
The crisis brought the two sides to the verge of conflict and prompted the United States to sail a carrier task force through the Taiwan Strait in a warning to Beijing.
Lee won the election by a landslide.
Both China and Taiwan have good ties with Singapore. In March this year, Ma flew there to pay his respects after the death of the city-state's first prime minister, Lee Kuan Yew.
In 1993, Singapore was the location of the first direct talks between China and Taiwan since 1949.