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Chinese President Xi hosts the former Taiwanese president in Beijing in a rare meeting that embodies a bygone era of warm relations

Chinese President Xi hosts the former Taiwanese president in Beijing in a rare meeting that embodies a bygone era of warm relations

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Chinese leader Xi Jinping held rare talks on Wednesday with a former president of the People's Republic of China Taiwan Which supports closer relations with Chinaa very unusual meeting a few weeks before the Democratic Al Jazeera was sworn in A new leader who Beijing openly hates.

Ma Ying-jeou, who led Taiwan from 2008 to 2016 and is currently in Beijing on an 11-day tour across China, met with Xi on Wednesday afternoon, state broadcaster CCTV reported.

The carefully choreographed moment is steeped in political symbolism: It is the first time China's top leader has hosted a former president of Taiwan in Beijing since Chiang Kai-shek's Kuomintang fled to Taipei in 1949.

This is also the first meeting between Xi and former KMT leader Ma since their meeting Historic summit In Singapore in 2015.

But their reunion also highlights the widening political divide across the Taiwan Strait – and how Xi's more aggressive stance toward Taipei has pushed more Taiwanese away from China.

In his opening remarks, Xi praised Ma for opposing “Taiwan independence”, promoting cross-Strait exchanges and agreeing that both sides of the Strait belong to “one China.”

“Compatriots on both sides of the Taiwan Strait are all children of the Chinese people. There is no grudge that cannot be resolved, there is no issue that cannot be discussed, and there is no force that can divide us,” Xi told his guest. “External interference cannot stop the historical trend of reunification.” Family and country.”

In response, Ma said that although both sides of the Strait developed under different regimes, the two peoples belong to the Chinese nation.

“If war breaks out between the two sides of the Taiwan Strait, it will be an unbearable burden on the Chinese nation,” he said. “I sincerely hope that the two sides will respect the values ​​and way of life that the people cherish and maintain peace across the Strait,” he added.

But the appeal of a shared Chinese identity has greatly diminished in Taiwan as Xi intensifies military, economic and diplomatic pressure on its democratic island neighbour.

This trend was confirmed in January, when Taiwanese voters ignored China's warnings and handed power to the ruling Democratic Progressive Party. Historic third term By election Lai Ching Twho has long faced Beijing's wrath for defending Taiwan's sovereignty.

Since then, Beijing has poached other diplomatic allies from Taipei's dwindling number Intensifying patrols About Taiwan's front line islands next Two Chinese fishermen drowned In nearby waters, while its fighter planes continue to fly near the autonomous island.

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Ma's meeting with Xi also coincides with a frenetic week of diplomatic activity in Washington where President Joe Biden will host the first-ever leaders' summit between the United States. Japan And the Philippines. Shared concerns about China Increasing assertiveness under Xi, including toward Taiwan, is the main driver of that summit.

A senior Taiwan government source told CNN that Beijing postponed the meeting from Monday to coincide with the summit between Biden and Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida on Wednesday.

Raslan Rahman/AFP/Getty Images

Chinese leader Xi Jinping shakes hands with then-Taiwan President Ma Ying-jeou before their meeting in Singapore on November 7, 2015.

Amanda Hsiao, senior China analyst at the International Crisis Group, said China's pressure tactics are aimed at pushing Taiwan's incoming Lai administration toward a more flexible policy stance toward China.

“Ma's visit continues these efforts by reiterating Beijing's position that cross-Strait dialogue is only possible with those in Taiwan who accept the idea that both sides of the Strait belong to 'one China,'” she added.

Beijing has cut off high-level official contacts with Taipei since President Tsai Ing-wen, of the Democratic Progressive Party, took office in 2016, leading to a wave of anger over Ma's controversial trade deal with Beijing and tapping into a growing number of determined Taiwanese voters. On maintaining Taiwanese trade relations. The island's distinctive identity.

In contrast to the KMT, the DPP rejects Beijing's precondition for formal talks – an agreement under which both sides accept the existence of “one China,” with their own interpretations of what that means.

Official contacts with Lai, who has pledged to follow Tsai's cross-Strait policies, are unlikely to resume. Beijing has repeatedly criticized Lai's offer for talks and denounced him as a dangerous separatist and a “troublemaker.”

But by focusing on Ma, who has been out of office for years and has little power to shape Taiwan's political reality, Beijing may be revealing its “inability to find or cultivate another Taiwanese political figure of similar stature who is willing to play dove toward Beijing.” “. said Wen Tee Song, a Taiwan-based fellow at the Atlantic Council's Global China Center.

Ma became a frequent traveler to the Chinese mainland.

The 73-year-old became the first former president of Taiwan to set foot on the mainland in late March last year, when he began a 12-day journey across the Taiwan Strait. But he failed to win an interview with any leader on the Politburo Standing Committee, the innermost link of power in Beijing.

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As last time, this year's visit was timed to coincide with the Qingming Festival – a traditional time when people honor deceased family members and worship their ancestors; It also comes just weeks before Lai is inaugurated as Taiwan's president on May 20.

“The meeting at this stage enables Beijing to highlight the common cultural roots between Taiwan and China, and to exert pressure on the next administration in Taiwan,” Song said.

“Beijing is using this meeting between Xi and Ma to underscore the credibility and solidity of its carrot — that Beijing is good to its friends, current or retired. It signals to political leaders around the world that befriending Beijing is a worthwhile long-term investment.”

Song added that China's acceptance of Ma's visit is also a signal to Taiwan and others that peaceful unification by winning hearts and minds remains Beijing's preferred option — at least for now, despite escalating cross-Strait tensions.

The carefully shot footage of the talks — which is expected to reach millions of homes on prime-time television news in China — also serves as a message to the Chinese public that unification with Taiwan is still possible despite the party's historic victory. Progressive Democrats in the elections.

For Beijing, Ma's visit is also a useful way to reassure its domestic audience — “We have not lost the hearts and minds of the Taiwanese people, there are still cultural and historical ties that bind us, and the DPP does not represent mainstream Taiwanese views,” said Hsiao, the analyst.

Yan Zhao/AFP/Getty Images

Former Taiwan President Ma Ying-jeou speaks to reporters before his visit to China at Taoyuan International Airport on April 1, 2024.

Ma, who is traveling in a personal capacity, described his trip as a “trip of peace and friendship” before departing for the mainland with a delegation of Taiwanese students.

He received heavy coverage from Chinese state media, which referred to him simply as “Mr.” “Ma Ying-jeou” or former Chairman of the Kuomintang Party, without mentioning his previous role as President of Taiwan.

In the southern city of Guangzhou, Hu Bend over In front of a monument honoring the failed uprising against the Qing Dynasty launched by Sun Yat-sen, founder of the Republic of China (now Taiwan's official name). Sun is considered the father of modern China on both sides of the Strait.

In northwestern Shaanxi Province, Ma Attend it A ceremony honoring the Yellow Emperor, the legendary ancestor of the Chinese people, urging young people in Taiwan to “remember the roots of Chinese culture and the Chinese nation.”

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On the Great Wall of China in Beijing rich A Chinese patriotic song about the fight against the Japanese invaders during World War II. The song, which was composed shortly after the invasion began, was very popular among communists and nationalists.

But his emphasis on a shared Chinese identity is increasingly inconsistent with prevailing sentiment in Taiwan, where less than 3% of the population now considers themselves primarily Chinese, and less than 10% support immediate or eventual unification.

On the other hand, opinion polls show that increasing numbers of people – especially younger voters – see themselves as distinctly Taiwanese and have no desire to be part of China.

Ma's itinerary – and his meeting with Xi – was closely watched in Taiwan.

“The ruling Democratic Progressive Party is likely to downplay Ma's visits to China, preferring to describe them as a private tourism business undertaken by a retiree,” said the Atlantic Council's Song.

“Taiwan's opposition Kuomintang party will be torn apart – willing to celebrate achievements with Beijing, but also reluctant to flaunt them to Taiwanese voters, who remain wary of closer cross-Strait ties.”

Ma remains a senior member of the Kuomintang, which won the largest number of seats in Taiwan's January parliamentary elections, but failed to win the presidency for the third time in a row.

The KMT, as the largest opposition party, is keen to show that it is more capable of managing relations with both China and the United States, but a meeting may hurt more than it helps, said James Chen, an assistant professor of diplomacy and international relations at Ma University. Tamkang University in Taiwan.

“The DPP and its supporters have questioned Ma's loyalty at home and have described the KMT as pro-China. Washington, especially Capitol Hill, may not appreciate Ma's trip to China given the anti-China sentiment between the two parties,” he said.

Few experts believe the meeting will lead to any fundamental change in the status quo in cross-Strait relations.

“The value of this meeting lies primarily in its symbolism – an attempt to shape the cross-Strait narrative to the benefit of both sides while fundamental political differences remain,” said Hsiao, of the International Crisis Group.

But for Ma, the meeting will serve to cement his legacy on cross-Strait policy regardless of its outcome.

“He likely wants people to remember him as the only Taiwanese leader who can break the ice with Beijing,” Song said.