Former Taiwan President Ma Ying-jeou will visit China next week in what a spokesman called a bid to ease tensions between the self-ruled island and the mainland.
Ma presided over a period of warm ties with Beijing, but left office under a cloud after a trade deal with the mainland failed to win approval amid the island's largest protests since the 1990s. Although the former president is visiting in a private capacity, his stature as a former leader gives the trip political overtones.
Ma's proposed visit comes as China's People Liberation Army sends fighter jets toward Taiwan on a near daily basis, and as official communications between the two governments have broken off. China's ruling government claims Taiwan is part of its territory, but Taiwan's governing Democratic Progressive Party says it's already a sovereign state that is not part of China.
Ma, a member of the opposition Nationalist Party (Kuomingtang), will lead a delegation of academics and students as well as his former presidential staffers from March 27 to April 7, his office said Sunday.
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The office of President Tsai Ing-wen said Ma had notified her of his plans on Monday. The president's office said it "hoped Ma, in his role as the former head of state ... can show the value of Taiwan’s democracy and freedom and the position of equality and dignity in cross-strait exchanges."
Ma will visit Nanjing, Wuhan and Changsha, as well as other cities, Hsiao Hsu-tsen, the director of the Ma Ying-jeou Foundation on Monday, told a news conference in Taipei.
Hsiao also announced that Ma would bring college students from Taiwan to meet with colleagues from Shanghai's Fudan University and Changsha's Hunan University.
"He strongly believes, as both sides of the (Taiwan) Strait have entered this frozen situation in recent years, allowing young people to have an exchange will help reduce tensions," Hsiao said. "I think no matter how many weapons we buy, it's not as good as having young people from both sides understand each other, and deepen their exchange."
Ma will not go to Beijing, Hsiao said. The trip is also a chance for him to honor his ancestors, he added, ahead of Tomb Sweeping Day on April 5. During the festival, which is celebrated in Taiwan and China, among other countries, families pay a visit to ancestral graves to remember the deceased and to maintain the burial grounds.
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Ma's trip was also confirmed by China’s Taiwan Affairs Office.
Any results are likely to be symbolic, and will mostly benefit China, said Hoo Tiang Boon, a professor at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore who studies Chinese foreign policy. "Then they can then show they are not against Taiwan, they are not against the Taiwanese people," he said. "It’s the DPP and what they deem as separatists causing provocations in cross-strait relations."
Hoo added that he didn’t think it was likely the trip would influence Taiwan’s presidential elections next year.
Other experts agreed that it was unlikely to resolve any major issues, but it could still prove helpful.
Ma's visit follows Andrew Hsia, vice chairman of the Kuomingtang, who went on a 10-day tour of China in February and met with the head of the Taiwan Affairs Office.
Members of the Kuomingtang regularly have exchanges with China. Taipei Mayor Chiang Wang-an, who belongs to the Kuomingtang, had hosted Shanghai city officials in February as well, and discussed exchanges in culture, sports and tourism.
"He's not really representing the government to go and negotiate, I think he just wants to transmit the idea of peaceful exchange," said Kao-cheng Wang, a professor at the Graduate Institute of International Affairs and Strategic Studies at Tamkang University in Taiwan, referring to Ma's plan to bring students. "This will be helpful to cross-strait relations and future development."
During Ma’s terms in office, Taiwan and China increased contacts. Ma negotiated a trade pact with Beijing in 2010 and Chinese tourists flocked to Taiwan.
But as both sides opened their borders to each other, concerns grew that Taiwan was falling inescapably into Beijing's orbit, eventually leading to protests over a proposed trade deal with Beijing in 2014. The protests, known as the Sunflower Movement, sparked a rally that drew more than 200,000 people and a 24-day occupation of Taiwan’s parliament by students.
Ma met with Chinese President Xi Jinping in Singapore in 2015, while he was still in office. The meeting was the first between the leaders of the two sides since Taiwan split from mainland China in 1949 during the Chinese civil war, but was considered more symbolic than substantive.
In 2016, the independence-leaning Democratic Progressive Party won national elections and Beijing cut off contact with Taiwan's government, citing Tsai's refusal to endorse the idea that Taiwan and China are one country.