Taiwan’s former president Ma Ying-jeou will visit China this month in what will be the first ever visit to the Communist country by a sitting or retired Taiwanese president.
The 10-day trip, starting on March 27, will highlight the stark differences between Taiwan’s two main political parties over its relations with China, just as they gear up to campaign for next January’s presidential and parliamentary elections.
Ma’s China visit will take place at roughly the same time as Taiwan’s president Tsai Ing-wen is scheduled to travel to the US, the only guarantor of Taiwan’s security.
Tsai’s Democratic Progressive party sees Taiwan as an independent country, while Ma’s opposition Kuomintang, which was founded in China, sees Taiwan as part of a Chinese nation, albeit not the People’s Republic of China.
China, which claims Taiwan as part of its territory and threatens to attack if Taipei refuses to submit to its control indefinitely, has been menacing the country with air and naval manoeuvres in its vicinity on an almost daily basis since the 2019 landslide re-election of Tsai, with whom Beijing refuses to engage. Meanwhile, China’s ruling Communist party is seeking dialogue with the KMT.
Beijing had been expected to make a big push for talks with the KMT this year ahead of next January’s election at the same time as showing Tsai the cold shoulder, said Chao Chun-shan, a cross-Straits expert who has advised Taiwan’s last four presidents including Tsai and Ma on China policy.
“There will be a push for big dialogue this year, but after the election there will be a big change,” said Chao, who met China’s top Taiwan policy officials on a trip to Beijing with KMT vice-chair Andrew Hsia last month.
“If the DPP wins, they will pressure Taiwan to move towards unification with military threats. If the KMT wins, they will push Taiwan to move towards unification through negotiation,” he said.
Ma oversaw a detente with Beijing during his two consecutive presidential terms from 2008 to 2016, mainly because he agreed to the formula that Taiwan was a part of China although the two sides’ concept of that China differed. He cut defence spending and took a low-key approach to foreign relations and sovereignty.
His government concluded a bilateral trade deal with China and negotiated a second agreement for trade in services. But his presidency disappointed China because Ma’s trade deals triggered mass protests and a broad pushback against engagement with Beijing. He met with Chinese leader Xi Jinping in Singapore in November 2015, the first-ever encounter between a Taiwanese and Chinese president and the first such meeting between KMT and Chinese Communist party leaders since the end of the civil war the two parties fought in China until 1949.