Former Taiwan President Ma Ying-jeou left for China on Monday on a landmark trip, saying he hoped to bring about peace and improve relations through the interactions of young people.
Ma, in office from 2008-2016, will be the first former or current Taiwanese president to visit China since the defeated Republic of China government fled to Taiwan in 1949 at the end of a civil war with the Communists, where it remains to this day.
The trip comes at a time of heightened tensions between Beijing and Taipei as China keeps up military and political pressure to try and get democratic Taiwan to accept Chinese sovereignty.
Ma met Chinese President Xi Jinping in Singapore in late 2015 shortly before the current Taiwan president, Tsai Ing-wen, won an election.
Speaking to reporters at Taiwan’s main international airport at Taoyuan, Ma, 73, said he was “very happy” to be going on a trip where he will talk to students and pay respects to the graves of his ancestors in China.
“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 in short remarks.
Ma is a senior member of Taiwan’s main opposition party, the Kuomintang (KMT), which favours close ties with China although it strongly denies being pro-Beijing.
The KMT says outreach to China is needed now more than ever given the tensions across the Taiwan Strait.
China has rebuffed Tsai’s repeated calls for talks, believing her to be a separatist. She says only Taiwan’s people can decide their future.
Ma is not scheduled to meet any senior Chinese officials while there, but the head of his foundation said last week Ma will be “at his host’s disposal” if they do arrange such a get-together.
Ma was met at the airport by both supporters and angry demonstrators from the pro-independence group Taiwan Republic Office, who were only allowed to show their banners inside the airport for a brief period before being pushed out by police.
Taiwan’s ruling Democratic Progressive Party criticised Ma for going on Monday, saying it was inappropriate given former long-time Taiwan ally Honduras had ended ties with Taipei in favour of Beijing the day before.