Beijing deplores Taiwan’s next president, but welcomes an old one

Protesters wearing masks of former Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou, left, and Chinese President Xi Jinping, right, perform, as Ma leaves for China outside of Taoyuan International Airport in Taoyuan City, Northern Taiwan, Monday, April 1, 2024. (AP Photo/Chiang Ying-ying)

TAIPEI, Taiwan — As tensions fester between China and Taiwan, one elder politician from the island democracy is getting an effusive welcome on the mainland: Ma Ying-jeou, a former president.

Ma’s 11-day trip across China, which began Monday, comes at a fraught time. China and Taiwan have been in dispute over two Chinese fishermen who died while trying to flee a Taiwanese coast guard vessel in February, and China has sent its own coast guard ships close to a Taiwanese-controlled island near where the men died.


Taiwanese officials expect China to intensify its military intimidation once the island’s next president, Lai Ching-te, takes office on May 20. His Democratic Progressive Party rejects China’s claim that Taiwan is part of China, and Chinese officials particularly dislike Lai, often citing his 2017 description of himself as a “pragmatic worker for Taiwan’s independence.”

On the other hand, China’s warm treatment of Ma, 73, Taiwan’s president from 2008 to 2016, seems a way to emphasize that China will keep an open door for politicians who favor closer ties and accept its conditions for talks.

“Beijing’s policy toward Taiwan will definitely be using more of both a gentle touch but also a hard fist,” Chang Wu-yue, a professor at the Graduate Institute of China Studies of Tamkang University in Taiwan, said in an interview about Ma’s visit.

Officials from Ma’s Nationalist Party have hinted that later in his trip, he may meet with Chinese President Xi Jinping. That would echo groundbreaking talks that the two held in 2015. China has frozen high-level official contacts since Taiwan’s current president, Tsai Ing-wen, took office in 2016. She and the president-elect, Lai, belong to the same party, usually known by its initials, DPP.

“This trip to the mainland is in the hope that at a time of cross-strait tensions, we can convey Taiwanese people’s heartfelt love of peace and hope for engagement between the two sides of the strait, avoiding war,” Ma told reporters in Taiwan before leaving for China.

Lai has said that there will be no drastic change in Taiwan’s status and that he wants talks with China. But his party rejects China’s conditions for official talks, especially a formula under which each side accepts there is “one China,” even if they differ on what that means. The Democratic Progressives call that a rhetorical trap to advance China’s claim over Taiwan.

Nationalist Party officials argue that they help Taiwan by talking to senior Chinese officials.

“What if an accident happens? There’s no dialogue, no communication channel, between the DPP government and the Communist government in China,” Sean Lien, a vice chair of the Nationalist Party, said in an interview before Ma’s trip. “The fact that he’s visiting China in early April, and probably will meet with Xi Jinping — I actually think that will help reduce the mounting tensions between Taiwan and mainland China.”

For Xi, a meeting with Ma may be a way of trying to show Chinese people that Taiwan is not slipping irretrievably beyond hope of unification.

“For Beijing, it’s in Xi’s interest to show that time is on mainland China’s side, and maybe he can spin a meeting with Ma — if it happens — to convey that narrative to the domestic audience,” said Bonnie Glaser, managing director of the Indo-Pacific program at the German Marshall Fund of the United States. “That might ease some of the pressure that is rising internally.”

In part, Ma’s trip is another move in the contest between his Nationalist Party and Lai’s incoming administration.

Lai won 40% of the presidential vote, prevailing in a three-way race. But the Nationalists won the most seats in the legislative election. Both the Nationalists and Chinese officials have said those results showed that Lai does not represent mainstream Taiwanese opinion, a message China is likely to amplify during Ma’s visit.

According to a poll of Taiwanese people by the Election Study Center of National Chengchi University in Taipei, about 1% support unification “as soon as possible.” Nearly 90% favor some version of Taiwan’s current ambiguous status quo: self-ruling, separate from China, but short of full formal independence.

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