Former Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou landed in Shanghai on Monday afternoon, the first former leader of the self-ruled island to do so in nearly seven decades, in a visit that he said was an effort to “lower heightened political and military tension between the two sides”.
Ma’s 12-day visit to China will coincide with Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen’s visit later this week to Belize and Guatemala in Central America and two stopovers in New York and Los Angeles, a visit that’s set to trigger angry responses from Beijing.
The Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), Tsai’s ruling party, has called Ma’s visit “regrettable”.
Ma’s tour has also been criticised in his country as it comes a day after the Central American country of Honduras severed diplomatic ties with Taiwan in favour of Beijing, which claims the self-ruled island as part of its territory and has vowed to merge it one day with the mainland, if necessary by force.
Beijing has escalated military, economic and diplomatic pressure on Taiwan since current President Tsai came to power in 2016, luring nine of Taiwan’s allies, leaving the island with only 13 countries that now diplomatically recognise the island.
Beijing has also held large scale war games around Taiwan last year and earlier this year and its air force frequently buzzes the island with fighter jets and bombers.
“I hope to improve the cross-strait atmosphere through the enthusiastic interactions of young people, so peace can come to us faster and sooner,” the 73-year-old said at the airport before his departure, according to an AFP report from Taipei.
“Apart from going to make offerings to my ancestors, I am also taking Taiwan university students to the mainland for exchanges with them, hoping to improve the current cross-strait atmosphere through the enthusiasm and interaction of young people, so peace can come even faster and sooner to us here,” he said.
Ma arrived in Shanghai on Monday afternoon and was met at the airport by central government and city officials, China’s official Xinhua news agency reported.
“Former Taiwan leader Ma Ying-jeou arrived in Shanghai Monday afternoon and then left for the eastern city of Nanjing,” the Xinhua report said.
“Ma will pay respects to his ancestors on the occasion of the Qingming Festival, or Tomb-sweeping Day, and lead a group of Taiwan students for communication and exchange activities. His itinerary will include Nanjing, Wuhan, Changsha, Chongqing and Shanghai,” the Xinhua report added.
Ma was Taiwan’s president from 2008 to 2016 and is still a heavyweight in the now-opposition Kuomintang (KMT).
Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson, Mao Ning, offered no comment on Ma’s visit, saying it was “not a diplomatic issue,” at the regular ministry briefing on Monday.