Former Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou visited China on Monday, the first time a former Taiwanese president has visited the People’s Republic of China. The 12-day visit has caused concern in Taiwan and the United States, as Ma’s visit highlights the contentious relationship between Taiwan and China and the growing tensions between the US and China.
Ma, who served as Taiwan’s president from 2008 to 2016, believes in good ties with China for Taiwan’s economy and stability. During his visit, Ma plans to visit the graves of his ancestors and show a group of Taiwanese students how members of his party, the Kuomintang (KMT) and the Communist Party of China (CPC), fought together against Japan during World War II.
However, Ma’s visit has been met with skepticism by Taiwan’s current president, Tsai Ing-wen, who prefers to rely on the United States to protect the island. Tsai is scheduled to travel to New York and California to meet with the new Republican Speaker of the House of Representatives, Kevin McCarthy. China, who responded with a military blockade and outrage when former Speaker Nancy Pelosi visited Taiwan in August, opposed the meeting between Tsai Ing-wen and Kevin McCarthy.
While Ma’s visit is largely symbolic, and he is visiting China as an unofficial citizen, it is clear that his visit is making a political statement. Ma believes that China and Taiwan belong together, which gives Beijing a powerful weapon in its battle with the US over Taiwan.
However, Ma does not favor joining China anytime soon, as this is highly unpopular with Taiwanese voters. Recent polls show that only just over 10% favor a long-term affiliation with China. Ma’s party, the KMT, was expelled from China by the Communists in 1949 and has always shared one position with the CPC: both parties see the People’s Republic and Taiwan as two parts of one great Chinese empire but disagree on how that empire should be governed.
Tsai’s party, the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), no longer accepts the unity dogma and sees Taiwan as a de facto independent country. Tsai argues that there is no need to formally declare Taiwan’s independence since it is already de facto independent, and a formal secession would bring the Chinese military to Taiwan.
Since Tsai took office in 2016, her stance on Taiwan’s independence has provoked fierce anger from Beijing. The current Chinese president, Xi Jinping, is much more aggressive on this issue than his predecessors and does not seem to want to wait too long for reunification, for better or worse. As such, the modernization of China’s military is primarily focused on developing capabilities to take Taiwan militarily.
Under Ma’s reign, ties with China improved significantly. Direct flights between China and Taiwan arrived in 2009, large groups of Chinese tourists visited the island, Taiwanese companies invested widely in China, and Taiwanese students attended Chinese universities. But when Tsai came to power, those ties abruptly cooled.
Ma’s visit to China is likely to affect the political dynamics between Taiwan and the People’s Republic of China. Both supporters and opponents of closer ties between Taiwan and China will closely watch his presence and actions. With the Taiwanese elections coming up in January 2024, the impact of Ma’s visit on the political climate and election results will certainly be an interesting point of discussion.
The United States has long supported Taiwan and considers it a strategic ally in the region. In recent years, the US has increased its support for Taiwan through arms sales and official visits by high-ranking US officials. However, this support has angered Beijing, which sees Taiwan as a renegade province and has repeatedly warned the US against interfering in its affairs.
The current US administration, led by President Joe Biden, has continued to express its support for Taiwan. In a recent call with President Tsai Ing-wen, Biden reaffirmed the US commitment to Taiwan’s defense and praised the island’s democratic achievements. The call was seen as a significant signal to Beijing, which has been ramping up its military activity around Taiwan in recent months.
China’s growing assertiveness in the region has also led to concerns among its neighbors. Japan, South Korea, and Australia have all expressed concern over China’s military ambitions and its behavior in the South China Sea. The US has sought to strengthen its alliances in the region as a counterbalance to China, with the Quad – a grouping of the US, Japan, India, and Australia – seen as a key part of this strategy.
As tensions continue to rise, there are growing concerns that a military conflict between China and Taiwan could erupt. Such a conflict would have significant implications for the region and the world, potentially drawing in the US and other major powers. As such, efforts to resolve the Taiwan issue peacefully are crucial.
Ma Ying-jeou’s visit to China highlights the complex relationship between Taiwan and China, and the competing interests of the major powers in the region. While Ma’s visit may be symbolic, it underscores the fact that the Taiwan issue remains a key flashpoint in the region. The upcoming Taiwanese elections and the ongoing tensions between China and the US will continue to shape the future of Taiwan and the wider Asia-Pacific region.