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Private Trip Steeped in Political Overtones: Ex-Taiwan Leader to Make Landmark Mainland China Visit

© AFP 2023 / MOHD RASFAN Chinese President Xi Jinping and Taiwan President Ma Ying-jeou wave to journalists before their meeting at Shangrila hotel in Singapore on November 7, 2015
Chinese President Xi Jinping and Taiwan President Ma Ying-jeou wave to journalists before their meeting at Shangrila hotel in Singapore on November 7, 2015 - Sputnik International, 1920, 27.03.2023
Ma Ying-jeou, a Taiwanese politician who served as president of the Republic of China - the official name of the self-governed island of Taiwan - from 2008 to 2016, said in 2019 he had long wanted to visit mainland China, despite "working on cross-Straits relations" for decades.
The private foray of former Taiwanese leader Ma Ying-jeou to mainland China from 27 March to 7 April has been already described as everything ranging from a "landmark" visit capable of mending febrile cross-strait relations, to a “political ploy” orchestrated by Beijing.
This will be the debut visit of any former or present leader of Taiwan to mainland China since 1949. The government in Taipei is all that is left of the republican government routed by the Communist Party of China in the civil war in 1949, when the new People’s Republic of China was founded in Beijing. Although the PRC views the island as its wayward province, destined for eventual reunification, Taiwan maintains that it is an autonomous country, though it stops short of declaring independence. Beijing opposes any foreign state having official contact with Taipei and considers Chinese sovereignty over the island indisputable.
© AFP 2023 / SAM YEHFormer Taiwan leader Ma Ying-jeou speaks to the press after a speech to the Harvard College Asia Program in Taipei on March 14, 2017.
Former Taiwan leader Ma Ying-jeou speaks to the press after a speech to the Harvard College Asia Program in Taipei on March 14, 2017. - Sputnik International, 1920, 26.03.2023
Former Taiwan leader Ma Ying-jeou speaks to the press after a speech to the Harvard College Asia Program in Taipei on March 14, 2017.
What is behind the timing of this visit, and how could it affect relations between China and Taiwan? Sputnik examines

Youth Exchanges & Homage to Ancestors

Flanked by a delegation of about 30 students and several former aides, Ma Ying-jeou, a member of the opposition Nationalist Party (Kuomintang or KMT), is scheduled to begin his 12-day visit to mainland China in Nanjing, capital of Jiangsu province, on Monday. The Taiwanese politician's trip to the People's Republic of China will then involve stopovers in Wuhan, Changsha, Chongqing and Shanghai, according to the Ma Ying-jeou Foundation.
Ma’s trip will purportedly have two main purposes: to facilitate student exchanges, and to enable the ex-regional leader to pay his respects to the graves of his ancestors in China, according to Ma Ying-jeou Foundation director, Hsiao Hsu-tsen. He explained that college students from Taiwan will be granted a chance to meet peers from Shanghai’s Fudan University and Changsha’s Hunan University.

"He strongly believes, as both sides of the [Taiwan] Strait have entered this frozen situation in recent years, that allowing young people to have an exchange will help reduce tensions. I think no matter how many weapons we buy, it’s not as good as having young people from both sides understand each other, and deepen their exchange," Hsiao Hsu-tsen said.

He also emphasized:
"There is no itinerary in Beijing and no meeting with mainland leaders, including Mr Xi Jinping... The trip is to central China, we have not arranged to go to Beijing."
© AFP 2023 / NOEL CELISPeople visit the tomb of a deceased relative at the Babaoshan People's Cemetery in Beijing on April 4, 2022.
People visit the tomb of a deceased relative at the Babaoshan People's Cemetery in Beijing on April 4, 2022. - Sputnik International, 1920, 26.03.2023
People visit the tomb of a deceased relative at the Babaoshan People's Cemetery in Beijing on April 4, 2022.
Ma Ying-jeou himself was cited as saying:

"Exchanges between young people from the mainland and Taiwan have been on hold for years, and I hope to take the opportunity of this visit to boost interaction between youths of both sides."

Indeed, this appears to echo the recent sentiments expressed by Chinese President Xi Jinping. During a speech before the National People’s Congress (NPC), China’s legislative body, Xi said earlier in March that his government would actively promote the "peaceful development" of cross-strait relations and "unswervingly" promote reunification with Taiwan. Furthermore, the new Chinese premier, Li Qiang, also emphasized that Chinese people on both sides of the strait were "one family" and restoration of normal trade and exchange across the waterway was "everyone's common expectation and requires joint efforts".
Ma Ying-jeou's time in office marked a period of increased contact between Taiwan and China. Back in 2010, Ma successfully negotiated a trade pact with Beijing, but that same deal served to ignite protests in 2014. Ma Ying-jeou insisted at the time that the deal would bring economic benefits, but critics slammed it as making Taiwan too economically dependent on China. In 2015, while he was still in office, Ma met with Chinese President Xi Jinping in a symbolic meeting - the first between the leaders of the two sides since the Taiwan split.
After Tsai Ing-wen of the pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) was elected President of Taiwan in 2016, exchanges of the nature advocated by Ma were put on the backburner.
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Mixed Reactions

Beijing’s Taiwan Affairs Office has welcomed Ma’s visit to mainland China.

"We are willing to provide all necessary help for Mr Ma Ying-jeou to visit and wish him a smooth journey," spokesman Ma Xiaoguang said, with the trip hailed as potentially able to "strengthen exchanges of young people and add fresh vitality to the development of cross-strait relations and peace".

The Office added that the scheduled stops to pay respects to ancestors during the annual tomb sweeping festival was a "shared tradition" for Chinese people irrespective of where they live. As for Taiwan's Kuomintang (KMT), its chairman Eric Chu Li-luan is reported as having voiced support for the trip, hoping it might promote peace across the Straits.
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The office of President Tsai Ing-wen was cited as confirming that the Taiwanese former leader had notified her of his visit schedule. The office added that it "hoped Ma, in his role as a former head of state … can show the value of Taiwan's democracy and freedom and the position of equality and dignity in cross-strait exchanges."
"Highly improper and undignified" was how the visit has been slammed by Taiwan's pro-independence advocates. As could be anticipated, they warned that Ma Ying-jeou might "sell out" the island, or would be probably wielded as a "ploy" by Beijing.

"As the Chinese communists have continued to ramp up pressure on Taiwan, including staging military drills to intimidate us and wooing our allies, as in the recent case of Honduras, it is totally unthinkable that Ma would make such a visit," Chang Chih-hao, a spokesman for the independence-leaning Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), was cited as saying.

Furthermore, lawmakers of the DPP denounced as "highly improper and undignified” the fact that Ma Ying-jeou was making the round trip flight on board Beijing’s flag carrier Air China. Another thing that rankled with Ma's detractors is that he agreed to be addressed as Mr Ma Ying-jeou rather than as former president by the hosting side.
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Timing & Speculations

Ma Ying-jeou's visit comes after the Central American nation of Honduras announced it would establish formal diplomatic relations with the People’s Republic of China on 15 March. The Foreign Ministry of Honduras also announced on 25 March that it had severed diplomatic relations with Taiwan. Taipei has diplomatic ties with 14 countries (which, by definition, officially recognize it), with the list including Belize, Guatemala, Haiti, Honduras, the Marshall Islands, Nauru, Palau, Paraguay, Saint Kitts and Nevis, Saint Lucia, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, Eswatini, Tuvalu, and the Vatican.
Over recent years, a number of countries, including El Salvador, the Dominican Republic, Burkina Faso, Panama, Kiribati, the Solomon Islands and Nicaragua, decided to cut ties with Taiwan and establish official relations with China instead. Under the one-China principle, a country must sever its ties with the breakaway island to establish official relations with Beijing.
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Another aspect about the timing worth noting is that it comes alongside Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen’s scheduled visits to the island’s Central American allies - Guatemala and Belize in transit through the United States from 29 March to 7 April.

"China obviously wants to create the impression that as President Tsai is having an important visit in the US, a former leader from Taiwan is making an ice-breaking trip in mainland China," DPP legislator Wu Szu-yao was cited as observing.

It should be noted that members of the KMT party occasionally visit China. Thus, ahead of Ma Ying-jeou’s visit, Andrew Hsia, vice-chairman of the KMT, spent 10 days on the mainland in February, meeting with the head of the Taiwan Affairs Office. And Taipei Mayor Chiang Wang-an hosted Shanghai city officials in February.
Weighing the potential impact of the former Taiwan leader's visit, many Chinese analysts were cited by the media as touting the symbolic nature of the trip. Some speculated Ma sought to "transmit the idea of peaceful exchange".
Bearing in mind the forthcoming elections in Taiwan in early 2024, some observers told China's outlets that the visit could be taken as a deliberate demonstration that the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT, or Kuomintang) and the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) were "going in different directions in their mainland policies".
The DPP, which favors Taiwan’s independence, suffered major losses in local elections late last year, with the KMT winning control of 13 cities and counties (including key mayoral seats in Taipei, Taoyuan and Keelung). The vote was viewed as a litmus test for the DPP’s political course ahead of the 2024 race to elect Taiwan's next chief administrator.
The present developments play out against the backdrop of heightened tensions between China and the United States. Washington, which pays lip service to the 'One China Policy' of recognizing Beijing's sovereignty over Taiwan, has been maintaining trade and unofficial political relations with the government in Taipei.
Beijing was further incensed when then-US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi made a provocative visit to Taiwan last August, prompting the Chinese People's Liberation Army to stage massive military drills around the island that included shooting ballistic missiles over it. Beijing has repeatedly warned the US against supporting Taipei, as well as any notions of Taiwan declaring independence from China.
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