Taiwan's Former President Meets Xi Jinping in Historic Visit to Beijing

Ma Ying-jeou, the former President of Taiwan, embarked on an 11-day tour across China, culminating in a rare meeting with Chinese leader Xi Jinping.

by Faruk Imamovic
Taiwan's Former President Meets Xi Jinping in Historic Visit to Beijing
© Getty Images/Annabelle Chih

Ma Ying-jeou, the former President of Taiwan, embarked on an 11-day tour across China, culminating in a rare meeting with Chinese leader Xi Jinping. This rendezvous, reported by state broadcaster CCTV, marks a pivotal moment in cross-strait relations, representing the first instance since 1949 that a former Taiwanese president has been hosted in Beijing by China’s paramount leader.

The backdrop to this meeting is rich with political nuance. Following the exodus of Chiang Kai-shek’s Kuomintang (KMT) to Taipei after their defeat in the Chinese Civil War, the two sides of the Taiwan Strait have followed starkly divergent paths. While Taiwan has evolved into a vibrant democracy, the People's Republic of China has pursued a model of centralized autocracy under the Communist Party. Yet, the symbolic meeting between Xi and Ma, a proponent of closer ties with China, unfolds at a time of escalating tensions and declining Taiwanese identification with China.

Navigating a Widening Political Divide

Xi Jinping's opening remarks to Ma Ying-jeou underscored a call for unity under the "one China" principle, emphasizing a shared Chinese identity and opposition to Taiwan independence. This stance, however, collides with the prevailing sentiment in Taiwan, where the allure of a shared Chinese identity has significantly diminished. The island's democratic trajectory, exemplified by the election of Lai Ching-te, a vocal advocate for Taiwan’s sovereignty, signals a firm rejection of Beijing’s overtures and pressure tactics.

Beijing's aggressive posture, characterized by military provocations and diplomatic isolation efforts, has not only failed to sway Taiwanese public opinion but has arguably fortified the island's resolve to maintain its distinct democratic identity. 

Strategic Implications and Regional Dynamics

The timing of Ma Ying-jeou's visit, intentionally coinciding with significant diplomatic activity in Washington, hints at Beijing's intent to signal its unwavering stance on Taiwan amidst growing international concern over its assertiveness. This meeting also serves as a strategic counter-narrative to the burgeoning security cooperation among the United States, Japan, and the Philippines, highlighting the cross-strait divide as a central issue in broader regional dynamics.

Furthermore, Ma's trip underlines Beijing's preference for engagement with Taiwan under conditions acceptable to the Communist Party. By showcasing its openness to dialogue with figures like Ma, who align with its "one China" principle, Beijing aims to isolate the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) and its supporters, portraying them as outliers in the cross-strait relationship.

The geopolitical chess game extends beyond the Taiwan Strait, influencing and being influenced by the strategic interests of major regional and global powers. The US-led summit with Japan and the Philippines, focused on collective security concerns, including those related to Taiwan, exemplifies the interconnected nature of regional security architectures and the pivotal role of Taiwan therein.

Protests In Taipei During China-Taiwan Summit Meeting
Protests In Taipei During China-Taiwan Summit Meeting© Getty Images/Ashley Pon

Within Taiwan: Reactions and Reflections

The visit of Ma Ying-jeou to Beijing, particularly his meeting with Xi Jinping, has ignited a spectrum of reactions within Taiwan, reflecting the island's complex internal dynamics and diverse perspectives on its relationship with China. As a figure advocating for closer ties with the mainland, Ma's diplomatic endeavors are scrutinized through the lens of Taiwan's fiercely guarded sovereignty and the contentious political divide that characterizes its domestic politics.

For the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), which currently holds the presidency and champions Taiwan's distinct identity and autonomy, Ma's visit is largely seen as an inconsequential gesture by a political retiree. The DPP's stance is predicated on the belief that such overtures to Beijing do not alter the status quo but instead serve as fodder for China's propaganda efforts aimed at undermining Taiwan's sovereignty.2

Conversely, the Kuomintang (KMT), of which Ma is a senior member, faces a conundrum. On one hand, the party seeks to celebrate what it perceives as a successful engagement with China, highlighting its purported ability to foster cross-strait dialogue and maintain peace. On the other hand, the KMT is acutely aware of the Taiwanese electorate's apprehensions about getting too close to China, necessitating a delicate balance in its response to Ma's visit.

The Taiwanese public's sentiment, particularly among younger generations, further complicates the narrative. Increasingly identifying as Taiwanese rather than Chinese, this demographic views Ma's emphasis on shared Chinese cultural and historical ties with skepticism, if not outright opposition. This shift in identity underscores a broader societal trend away from the unification narrative and towards a stronger affirmation of Taiwan's independence and uniqueness.

International Dimensions and Future Prospects

Beyond Taiwan's shores, Ma Ying-jeou's visit to Beijing echoes through the corridors of global diplomacy, underscoring the strategic importance of Taiwan in the Indo-Pacific region's security architecture. The meeting occurs against the backdrop of intensified US-China rivalry, with Taiwan emerging as a critical flashpoint in this geopolitical tug-of-war.

The United States, Taiwan's most significant ally, watches these developments closely, balancing its commitments under the Taiwan Relations Act with the imperative of managing its complex relationship with China. Washington's approach is indicative of a broader international consensus that, while supportive of Taiwan's democratic governance and de facto independence, remains cautious of provoking Beijing.

Looking ahead, the prospects for cross-strait relations remain uncertain. While Ma's visit symbolizes a potential channel for dialogue, the fundamental disagreements between Taiwan and China—most notably on the issue of sovereignty and the "one China" principle—persist. These ideological impasses, coupled with Taiwan's evolving identity and the shifting sands of international politics, suggest that the path towards any form of reconciliation or understanding will be fraught with challenges.

Xi Jinping Beijing China