Taiwan’s former President Ma Ying-jeou will visit mainland China next week, the first such trip by a former Taiwanese leader since the end of the Chinese Civil War in 1949.
Ma, a senior member of Taiwan’s Kuomintang (KMT) opposition party, will be in mainland China between March 27 and April 7, his foundation said in a statement Sunday.
He will pay respects to his ancestors in southwestern Hunan province and lead a delegation of Taiwanese students to interact with counterparts from mainland China in a number of cities, according to the foundation.
While the trip is ostensibly a private one it is filled with historic symbolism and comes at a time of deepening tensions over the future of Taiwan.
China’s ruling Communist Party has never controlled Taiwan but claims the self-ruled island democracy as its own and has repeatedly refused to rule out taking it by force.
At the end of the Chinese Civil War, Mao Zedong’s Communist Party took control of mainland China while the Kuomintang under Chiang Kai-shek fled to Taiwan – with both sides claiming to be the legitimate representative of China in the following decades, until Taiwan’s transition into a democracy in the 1990s.
But more recent decades saw increasingly ties warm between Beijing and the KMT, a rapprochement that reached its peak during Ma’s administration.
Ma served as Taiwan’s president between 2008 and 2016 during which he drew stronger economic ties between China and the democratically ruled island but kept Beijing’s push for reunification at bay.
His perceived closeness to Beijing, particularly on the economic front, sparked protests and a major voter backlash.
The KMT have lost the last two elections to the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), which is much more skeptical toward Beijing and rejects the tacit understanding that both sides acknowledge they belong to “one China,” but with different interpretations of what that entails.
China’s leader Xi Jinping has ramped up economic, diplomatic and military pressure on Taiwan ever since the DPP took power in 2016.
Ma’s historic trip is taking place against that febrile geopolitical backdrop and comes as Taiwan and the United States ramp up efforts to counter China’s growing military capabilities.
His trip will also come at a politically sensitive time. Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen will soon make a stopover in the US en route to diplomatic allies in Latin America, an official with Taiwan’s Overseas Community Affairs Council told lawmakers earlier this month. US House Speaker Kevin McCarthy also said he plans to meet with her when she is in the US.
Taiwan is scheduled to hold its next presidential election in January next year. Tsai is not eligible for re-election.
Fears of a Chinese invasion have loomed over Taiwan for more than seven decades but they have been supercharged by both Xi’s increased assertiveness and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
The KMT has long rejected being characterized as a “pro-Beijing” party. But its leadership, including Ma, have often pushed the need to improve ties.
The KMT’s deputy chairman Andrew Hsia visited Beijing last month to meet with senior Communist Party leader Wang Huning.
In contrast, Beijing has severed official communication with Taiwan’s Tsai-led government.
In 2015, Ma and Xi held a historic face-to-face meeting in Singapore – the first meeting between leaders of the Kuomintang and Chinese Communist Party since the end of the Chinese Civil War, although not on either side of the strait.
Ma’s foundation said a meeting between Xi and Ma is not currently being planned for the trip.
Taiwan’s presidential office said in a statement Sunday that Ma will be required to report details of his itinerary to the government before and after his visit to China.