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In a first, former Taiwanese president travels to China

Former Taiwan President Ma Ying-jeou spoke to members of the press before leaving for China Monday. Ma Ying-jeou became the first former president of Taiwan to visit China.Chiang Ying-ying/Associated Press

Ma Ying-jeou became the first former president of Taiwan to visit China after he landed in Shanghai on Monday afternoon, in what he said was an effort to lower heightened political and military tensions between the democratic island and the Communist-run behemoth across the strait.

The landmark trip comes just days before his successor as president, Tsai Ing-wen, embarks on a trip to the United States, Belize, and Guatemala, part of an effort to strengthen ties with the few remaining Central American countries that have official diplomatic relations with Taiwan.

Honduras announced over the weekend that it would cut ties with Taiwan and instead recognize China, shrinking the number of Taiwan's official diplomatic allies to just 13.


The timing of the two trips underscores the differences between Taiwan's two main political parties as they prepare for a general election in January. Ma's Kuomintang (KMT), or Nationalist Party, has long pursued closer ties with China, which sees Taiwan as part of its territory. Beijing does not engage with Tsai, whose Democratic Progressive Party sees Taiwan as a sovereign nation and maintains a close relationship with Washington.

"I am very happy to have this visit today," Ma told reporters at Taipei's Taoyuan International Airport before his departure. "I am 73 years old, and I have waited 36 years for the opportunity to visit the mainland. It's true that I waited a long time, but I am very happy to be able to go."

A small group of protesters carrying signs shouted criticism at Ma for "bowing down to China." The protesters, many of them elderly men, were forcibly wrestled out of the airport by police.

The trip is a corrective to Tsai's failing diplomatic strategy, said Hsiao Hsu-tsen, the head of Ma's foundation. Since Tsai took office in 2016, the island democracy has lost nine diplomatic allies.


On Monday, Taiwan presidential office spokeswoman Lin Yu-chan said that Tsai's office hopes "the Chinese government will follow the international standards for receiving outgoing heads of state."

China's Taiwan Affairs Office said in a statement last week that it welcomed Ma and "wished him every success in his visit."

Ma said he was undertaking the 10-day visit in a private capacity with no expectations of official meetings with any members of the Chinese Communist Party government. Significantly, a deputy director of China's Taiwan Affairs Office, Chen Yuanfeng, was at Pudong Airport during Ma's arrival, according to Taiwanese media.

As the first leader of the KMT to visit China since the Nationalists' defeat by the Communist Party in 1949, at the end of the Chinese civil war, Ma will visit sites of historic significance to the Nationalists, including the mausoleum and former residence of the party's founding father, Sun Yat-sen. He will also visit areas where his family members lived to mark the annual holiday of ancestral remembrance, the tomb-sweeping festival, which is celebrated by people on both sides of the strait.

More than 30 college students affiliated with Ma's foundation will join him on the trip, his office said.

“We hope that through these young people’s enthusiastic exchange, the current atmosphere on both sides of the strait can be improved, so that peace can come to us faster and earlier,” Ma said at the airport.

China’s Taiwan Affairs Office said the exchange would “inject youthful vitality into the peaceful development of cross-strait relations.”


Though the Chinese Communist Party has never ruled Taiwan, Beijing has said it does not rule out using military force against the island in pursuit of its vision of “peaceful reunification.”

Tensions have risen markedly since former House speaker Nancy Pelosi traveled to Taiwan last August, with China sending fighter jets toward Taiwan on an almost daily basis, sparking warnings in Washington about a war across the Taiwan Strait.

Ma's trip would help tamp down the risk of further escalation from China, especially as ties between the United States and China sour, said Zhang Wensheng, deputy director of the Graduate Institute for Taiwan Studies at Xiamen University across the strait in China.

“Ma’s trip will help ease the current tension between the two sides of the strait, and is of great significance to the peaceful development of cross-strait relations and future peaceful reunification,” Zhang told Hong Kong media.

During his tenure from 2008 to 2016, Ma drew Taiwan closer to China and increased bilateral trade across the strait. When he met with Chinese leader Xi Jinping in 2015, he became the first Nationalist leader to meet with their Communist Party counterpart since the civil war.

But his leadership also sparked widespread protests as many young Taiwanese people called for greater transparency and worried closer ties with China would not improve the island's economic outlook.

Chen Fang-yu, assistant professor of political science at Soochow University in Taiwan, said Ma had become a pawn for Beijing. "Xi Jinping just visited Moscow and then poached one of Taiwan's diplomatic allies. Ma's visit at this moment is like endorsing the Chinese Communist Party's deeds," said Chen.


“If Ma only echoes Beijing’s arguments when he goes to China, then this kind of communication will do more harm than good to Taiwan,” said Chen. “We don’t need to communicate for the sake of communication.”