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Amid Rising Tensions, Taiwan's Ex-President Embarks on 'Peacebuilding' Trip to Mainland China

By Cindy Sui

March 27, 2023

Former Taiwan President Ma Ying-jeou, center, waves as he arrivers with his delegation at the Pudong airport in Shanghai, China, March 27, 2023, in this photo released by Ma Ying-jeou Office.

Former Taiwan President Ma Ying-jeou arrived in the Chinese city of Shanghai on Monday, becoming the first past or current president from the self-ruled island to visit the mainland since the end of the Chinese civil war in 1949.

The visit comes as relations between the two sides have deteriorated to their worst level in decades under current Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen — a sharp contrast to the eight years when Ma served as president, when he brought about an unprecedented improvement in ties between the two longtime rivals from 2008 to 2016.

Speaking to reporters before leaving Taiwan, Ma, 73, who was traveling with his four sisters and around 30 students from his Ma Ying-jeou Foundation, said the trip was not just to pay respects at the graves of his ancestors in China, but to build peace.

"Apart from going to make offerings to my ancestors, I am also taking Taiwan university students to the mainland for exchanges with them, hoping to improve the current cross-strait atmosphere through the enthusiasm and interaction of young people, so that peace can come even faster and sooner to us here," he said.

Former Taiwan President Ma Ying-jeou talks to the press before leaving for China at Taoyuan International Airport in Taoyuan City, Northern Taiwan, March 27, 2023.

In a sign that Beijing sees Ma's visit as significant even though he no longer holds any position in government or in his Kuomintang party, the KMT, high-ranking Chinese officials greeted him at the airport. They included a deputy director of China's Taiwan Affairs Office and the Shanghai Communist Party standing committee's secretary general.

Ma and his delegation are set to hold discussions with Chinese university students and possibly meet with Chinese officials during his multi-city visit. The trip comes as tensions between China and Taiwan reach dangerous levels.

China rolled back tourism and other exchanges with Taiwan after Tsai came to power in 2016 and rejected the compromise agreement, known as the 1992 Consensus, that Ma had accepted and interpreted as the two sides agreeing there's one China, with each free to define what that is — the People's Republic of China (the mainland's official name) or the Republic of China (Taiwan's official name).

Tsai and her pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party, or DPP, argue the agreement was never written down and that Beijing has never acknowledged Ma and the KMT’s interpretation of it.

Beijing, however, had for years tacitly accepted Ma's interpretation, allowing the two sides to put aside the difficult issue of Taiwan's sovereignty and embark on an unprecedented warming of relations that benefited Taiwan's economy and businesses.

Such good relations came to an end after the Tsai and Trump administrations built closer relations, with Washington selling more advanced weapons to Taiwan, sending high-ranking officials to visit, and the U.S. Congress passing many acts aimed at strengthening ties with Taiwan as U.S.-China relations deteriorated.

Beijing saw such moves as an attempt to change the status quo and responded by stepping up political, military and economic pressure on Taiwan, to prevent the island it hopes to reunify with one day, from moving toward formal independence.

That included flying fighter jets and sailing warships near Taiwan almost daily. China considers Taiwan a wayward province and has often stated it prefers peaceful reunification eventually but has not renounced the use of force to prevent its formal independence.

Tensions peaked after then-U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi visited Taiwan in August 2022, becoming the highest-ranking American politician to travel to the island in nearly three decades. Beijing responded by conducting a blockade of the island and no longer recognizing the median line in the Taiwan Strait separating the two sides.

"President Ma is very concerned about the current state of cross-strait relations, so he's using his helping hand to help both sides develop stable relations," said Taiwanese legislator Charles Chen, a former spokesman for the presidential office when Ma was president. "He feels that since the government is unable to do this, citizens like him can."

The DPP on Monday accused Ma of going against public opinion by visiting the mainland a day after Beijing "poached" another one of Taiwan's few remaining allies, Honduras, which on Sunday severed ties with Taipei to switch official recognition to Beijing.

"Beijing chose the day before he departed on his trip to manipulate Honduras to sever diplomatic ties with Taiwan. As a former president, he should've adjusted his itinerary and expressed his position, such as by delaying his trip by one or two days," said DPP spokesman Chang Chih-hao.

The DPP's criticism of Ma is relatively mild compared to its past comments. With just 10 months to go before Taiwan's presidential election, it needs to win over voters to retain the presidency.

And an overwhelming majority of Taiwanese — 76% — favor a reduction in cross-strait tensions, according to the Taiwan Public Opinion Foundation, citing its survey in March.

"Suffice is to say most Taiwanese see peaceful coexistence as the preferred outcome rather than open confrontation, something that could indicate the DPP's 'Confront China to save Taiwan' card that it used so successfully in the 2019-20 cycle might not be working in this coming election," said Paul Huang, a Foundation research fellow.

Routinely conducted government surveys consistently found only 30% of Taiwanese people want formal independence, with a majority preferring to maintain the status quo of de facto independence.

At the airport in Taiwan, Ma was greeted by mostly supporters and only a handful of protesters from a pro-independence group that opposed his trip, shouting that Ma was humiliating Taiwan and "forfeiting sovereignty."

Protesters shout slogans as former Taiwan President Ma Ying-jeou leaves for China outside of Taoyuan International Airport in Taoyuan City, Northern Taiwan, March 27, 2023.

Ma's trip, however, has sparked hopes by Taiwanese increasingly worried about Taiwan being turned into a battlefield, especially with frequent talk of a possible war by some serving U.S. military officials and former U.S. officials, including one who visited Taiwan recently and advocated one million Taiwanese be armed with weapons and prepared to fight.

"We give him [Ma] high praise. He's showing the wisdom of a politician," said a local radio station's commentator, Jieh Wen-chieh. "We also hope he will continue to make efforts and not forget his mission for our land and our people. If we continue to follow the U.S. path, be a pawn of the Americans, I tell you a fierce battle is before us."

The visit marks the first time that Ma has been able to travel to the mainland and pay respects to his ancestors, given the hostilities between the two sides and his previous status as a government official.

The son of mainland immigrants, Ma's family suffered through the horrors of the civil war. Lawmaker Chen said Ma's message for this trip is very clear — that peace is still possible if both sides of the strait have regular and frequent exchanges, mutual understanding and interaction.

"His visit will show that this place can have peace, we don't have to march towards war, that there are many people in Taiwan who want peaceful coexistence and not war," said Chen. "His message is not only for Taiwanese people, but also for Americans and the whole world. Peace is still possible."


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