22.04.2024 Author: Vladimir Terehov

Former Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou visits the PRC

Former Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou visits the PRC

In the complex game being played by the major world powers in connection with the Taiwan issue, a remarkable event took place at the beginning of April this year, which attracted the attention of media around the world. This is about a tour of the PRC (or “Mainland China”) by former President Ma Ying-jeou accompanied by a certain Taiwanese youth group.

Between May 2008 and May 2016 (i.e., two consecutive four-year terms), Ma Ying-jeou, a member of the Kuomintang Party, served as President of Taiwan. Today the Kuomintang Party is in opposition, and the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) is in power. The current leader Tsai Ing-wen has also served two consecutive terms as President. On May 20 she will hand over power to fellow party member William Lai who won the general election earlier this year.

Significantly, this was Ma Ying-jeou’s second visit to the Mainland – he made a similar and equally long trip last year. That was the former president’s first ever trip to the PRC, although his parents are buried there, and the official reason for his visit was to visit their graves.

He did this a year ago, just as Tsai Ing-wen was making “intermediate stops” on her way to certain events in South America – a trip which was followed by a stopoff in the US. That stopoff, in fact, was the main purpose of the incumbent President’s foreign trip.

However, the former Taiwanese president’s second visit to the PRC was significantly different from his first trip in one important respect – his contacts with the Chinese leadership. This time he was received by the Chinese leader Xi Jinping – and it is this aspect of his trip that has attracted most of the interest from commentators. In the course of his meeting, President Xi had two main messages for his guest. Firstly, he stressed the Chinese people’s shared 5,000-year history, and their repeated migrations across the Taiwan Strait throughout that period, and also the “absence of any forces that could divide them” today. Secondly, he spoke about the PRC’s willingness to “untie all knots and discuss all problems” that currently exist in relations between the Mainland and Taiwan.

In response, the visitor rejected the prospect of Taiwan independence, reiterating the need to honor the “1992 Consensus” negotiated between the CCP and the Kuomintang, then in government on the island. It is important to note, however, that the “One China” principle cited in the Consensus is still interpreted differently by each side. The current Kuomintang continues to declare adherence to the above principle, which was one of the basic principles for the party’s (and modern China’s) founder, Sun Yat-sen. Ma Ying-jeou’s trip to the PRC began with a visit to Sun Yat-sen University, in Guangdong Province.

He also took part in another equally symbolic event, a ceremony honoring Huangdi, or the Yellow Emperor, a mythical figure in Chinese history who is said to have founded the Chinese nation almost 5,000 years ago.

And another symbolic event which clearly had great contemporary relevance was the Taiwanese guest’s visit to the memorial sites honoring the victims of the Second Sino-Japanese War of 1937-1945, in particular, the famous memorial in Nanjing. Noteworthy is Ma Ying-jeou’s reference, during one of the official events in his trip, to the 1943 Cairo Declaration, under which, at the end of World War II, all Chinese land previously seized by Japan was transferred to its former owner.

The DPP leadership has avoided making any such symbolic statements which reflect negatively on Japan. On the contrary, ever since DPP founder and former President Lee Teng-hui Taiwan has emphasized the fruitfulness of its relations with Japan in all periods (including the 1895-1945 colonial period). And, more recently, Ma Ying-jeou himself contributed to the comprehensive development of these relations during his presidency. By the way, it cannot be ruled out that as Tokyo’s focuses more and more on its Taiwan policy Japan may eventually take the place currently occupied by the United States in relation to the Taiwan issue.

Given the increasingly autonomous position taken by the DPP in relation to mainland China it seems strange that official festive ceremonies in honor of the Xinhai Revolution continue to be held on the island. This Revolution began when Taiwan (then called Formosa) was part of Japan, not China. Sun Yat-sen himself was one of the key figures in the Xinhai Revolution. The presence of his portrait on the wall of the office of incumbent President Tsai Ing-wen, who (like the DPP as a whole) adheres to a clearly separatist course in her relations with the PRC, is equally controversial.

But the bile-filled comments on Ma Ying-jeou’s recent trip from the Kuomintang’s Taiwanese opponents seem entirely understandable. For example one opinion piece contrasts Ma Ying-jeou’s meeting with Xi Jinping with the US-Japan summit held at the same time in Washington, DC, going so far as to describe the former Taiwanese president in highly unflattering terms.

The guest’s claim that “the Chinese people live on both sides of the Taiwan Strait” in his public speeches on the territory of the PRC (and, indeed, in speeches made during his previous trip) is categorically rejected. Without denying the fact that the main purpose of Ma Ying-jeou’s current tour of the PRC is to ease tensions and maintain peace in the Taiwan Strait, the Taipei Times accuses him of “muddying the waters” regarding the understanding of Taiwan’s status.

Meanwhile, for Taiwan’s current government this issue is of particular importance in connection with its strategy (supported by China’s opponents in every possible way) of gradually acquiring the status of an “ordinary, autonomous state” in the modern international political space. The only people who dare to openly support this status so far are aggressive political hooligans in a number of Eastern European countries, primarily the Baltic states. They, however, do not reflect even the sentiments of their own populations.

Meanwhile, there has been a steady decline in the number of countries that still maintain diplomatic relations with Taiwan. With the recent defection of Nauru, there are only 12 such countries left. All of them (with the exception of Paraguay) are small states in the Caribbean, Central America and the Pacific.

We should also note that there are signs of disagreements within the Kuomintang itself (its Taiwanese detractors even speak of the formation of different factions within the party) based on different approaches to key domestic and foreign policy issues. Ma Ying-jeou is not part of the current party leadership and his position in the party seems to be based entirely on the remaining goodwill left over from his term as president. That is, the “radical” nature (rather exaggerated, it would seem) of his movement towards the PRC is criticized not only by the DPP (as one might expect), but also by certain officials within his own party.

Arguably, there are signs of a shift in the Kuomintang’s position in relation to the two main players in the diplomatic games around Taiwan. Andrew Hsia, Vice Chairman of the Kuomintang, during his visit to Washington in mid-April, spoke with members of the US Congress on the need to maintain “affinity toward the US and pursue friendship with Japan.” It is worth noting, by the way, that according to leaked reports the head of the Taiwanese representative office in the United States was present during the landmark speech to Congress by Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida.

Significantly, a year ago Andrew Hisa also visited the PRC, and in his talks with high-ranking representatives of the country’s leadership he was equally complimentary to his hosts. And it is highly likely that in his upcoming trip to Mainland China current Kuomintang leader Eric Chu will be just as complimentary.

The inauguration of the newly elected President, William Lai, is also likely to reveal much about the current status of the Taiwan issue. After that, a cabinet of ministers will be proposed to the parliament (which has also been newly elected) for approval, and a number of personal nominees have already been announced.

In summary, the game around the Taiwan issue continues, and while the recent trip to the PRC of former Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou, discussed in this article, is significant, it is just one of a number of ongoing developments in this area.


Vladimir Terekhov, expert on the issues of the Asia-Pacific region, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook

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