The Boston Globe

Beijing deplores Taiwan’s next president, welcomes old one

Former politician backs closer ties to the mainland

- By Chris Buckley and Amy Chang Chien

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 percent of the presidenti­al vote. 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.

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