China welcomes former Taiwan president’s plan to visit

Ma Ying-jeou will become the first former or current leader of Taiwan to visit China since 1949.

Ma Ying-jeou shaking hands with his successor Tsai Ing-wen in 2016. He is smiling.
Ma Ying-jeou (right) was succeeded as president in 2016 by Tsai Ing-wen (left) but remains influential in the opposition KMT [File: Sun Chung-ta/ Pool Photo via AP Photo]

Beijing has welcomed a plan by former Taiwan President Ma Ying-jeou of the self-ruled island’s main opposition Kuomintang (KMT) party to visit China.

A Chinese government spokesperson for the Taiwan Affairs Office said officials will provide Ma with any assistance he needs, the state-run Global Times reported on Tuesday.

Ma, who led the self-ruled island from 2008 to 2016, plans to visit China from March 27 until April 7, becoming the first former Taiwan leader to visit China since the nationalist government moved to Taipei at the end of the civil war in 1949.

Ma Ying-jeou Foundation director Hsiao Hsu-tsen told reporters that Ma’s trip was mostly about student exchanges, and for the former president to pay respects to the graves of his ancestors in China.

“The trip is to central China, we have not arranged to go to Beijing,” Hsiao said.

He would not rule out meetings with senior officials when asked if Ma might meet Chinese President Xi Jinping, although he added that they did not anticipate it.

“As guests, we are at our hosts’ disposal,” Hsiao said.

China’s Taiwan Affairs Office noted that paying respects to ancestors was a “shared tradition” for people on either side of the straits and that student exchanges had the potential to “inject new energy into peaceful cross-Straits development”.

The visit comes amid heightened tensions across the Taiwan Strait as Beijing ramps up pressure on Taiwan, which it considers part of its territory. Beijing considers Tsai Ing-wen, who succeeded Ma as president and was returned to office in a landslide in 2020, as a ‘separatist’ who wants the island’s independence.

Reports say Tsai will fly to the United States at about the same time as Ma heads to China and is expected to meet House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, breaking an unspoken rule that Taiwanese presidents do not visit American officials in the US itself.

The KMT positions itself as the Taiwan party that has the best working relationship with Beijing.

Its vice chairman, Andrew Hsia, visited China in February — his second trip in six months — where he met some of China’s highest-ranking leaders. Controversially, he also travelled there in August 2022 as tensions between Beijing and Taiwan rose to their highest in 25 years after former US Speaker Nancy Pelosi made a visit to the island.

Taiwan’s next presidential election is due in January next year, and the KMT is hoping that its promises of a less fraught relationship with Beijing will prove appealing to voters who might have wearied of the political tension.

Having completed two terms, Tsai will not be able to run again.

Vice President William Lai announced this month he would stand in the primaries to be the party’s presidential candidate. Lai, the chairman of the ruling Democratic Progressive Party, reiterated the party’s position on China as he announced his candidacy.

“We must be united to strengthen Taiwan, stick to the democratic camp and ensure Taiwan’s security” in the face of increased Chinese “sabre rattling” and “unscrupulous diplomatic bullying,” he said.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies