By David Brunnstrom
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - America's top diplomat for Asia said on Wednesday it was hard to see which Taiwanese political party would benefit most in January elections from a meeting this week between the country's leader and Chinese President Xi Jinping.
But Daniel Russel, the U.S. assistant secretary of state for East Asia, said he hoped Saturday's meeting in Singapore would continue the positive momentum in China-Taiwan ties seen in the past several years.
Russel told a seminar in New York his first reaction to the meeting was that it was "consistent with the direction that we have always encouraged Beijing and Taipei to move in - namely direct constructive engagement with the view to promoting Cross-Strait stability and economic opportunity for both sides."
He said questions had since been raised in Taiwan's press about the timing and the potential political impact given that the presidential election was only two months away.
"It's very, very hard to know whether this meeting ... is going to have any effect on the elections and if it did, what effect it would be - whether it would help the KMT, whether it would help the DPP. I genuinely don't know," Russel said, referring to the pro-China Kuomintang and the opposition Democratic Progressive Party.
"But everyone is waiting to see how the conversation goes and whether the discussions between the two leaders continues the positive momentum of the last several years that has seen the relaxation of tensions," Russel said.
Russel said Washington did not pick sides in the race but does have a strong stake in Taiwan's democracy, economy and security, and stability in the Taiwan Strait.
The meeting between Xi and Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou will be the first between the leaders of the countries since the Chinese civil war ended in 1949.
It coincides with rising anti-China sentiment in Taiwan ahead of the presidential and parliamentary polls. The KMT is likely to lose to DPP, which traditionally favors independence from China.
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. Some analysts says this could backfire, given increasing anti-China protests, especially among the young.
Washington backs a "one-China policy" and has no diplomatic ties with Taiwan but is its main ally and committed to helping it defend itself in the event of a renewed conflict.
(Reporting by David Brunnstrom; Editing by Leslie Adler)