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Dueling Visits and Visions

In the run-up to Taiwan’s leadership election next year, the dueling visits paid by Tsai and Ma to the US and the Chinese mainland show two choices as the island finds itself caught in a precarious position

By Yu Xiaodong Updated Jun.1

Ma Ying-jeou (center), the former leader of the Taiwan region, and his sisters pay their respects at their family’s tomb in Xiangtan, Hunan Province, April 1, 2023. Ma embarked on a 12-day trip to the Chinese mainland from March 27 to April 7 (Photo by VCG)

With his delegation, Ma Ying-jeou (center), the former Chairman of the Chinese Kuomintang party, pays tribute at the mausoleum of heroic General Zhang Zizhong in Chongqing, April 4, 2023. Zhang, a Kuomintang general, was killed in the Chinese People’s War of Resistance against Japanese Aggression (1931-1945) (Photo by VCG)

In the final leg of her much-watched 10-day trip to Central and North America that included stops in New York and California, Taiwan leader Tsai Ing-wen finally met with US House Speaker Kevin McCarthy on April 5 in Simi Valley, California. In the meeting, McCarthy stressed that the US would strengthen arms sales to Taiwan and deepen cooperation with Taiwan in trade and technology.  

Since the Kuomintang (KMT), the losing side in China’s civil war, fled to Taiwan in 1949, the island has been ruled separately. But China still considers the island as part of its sovereign territory to be eventually unified through peaceful means or not, and only establishes diplomatic relations with countries that maintain no official ties with the island. The meeting between McCarthy and Tsai was held on Tsai’s way back from Guatemala and Belize, two of just 13 countries that maintain diplomatic relations with the island.  

As the rivalry between the US and China has intensified in recent years, the US has bolstered its political support to the island as a major part of its anti-China strategy. The Taiwan question has become the biggest flashpoint in the bilateral relationship between the world’s two powers.  

Around the same time, Ma Ying-jeou, former Taiwan leader and former chairman of the KMT, embarked on his first visit to the Chinese mainland, which was also the first visit of a former Taiwan leader to the mainland since 1949. His 12-day trip from March 27 to April 7 featured shared respect of Chinese people for family ancestors, forerunners, and victims and heroes of World War II. 

More Restraint? 
Tsai’s meeting with McCarthy was her second with a US House speaker in less than a year. In August 2022, former US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi made a high-profile visit to Taiwan. As the first US House Speaker to visit the island in 25 years, China considered Pelosi’s trip a major provocation, and responded by launching large-scale military exercises around the island, including launching missiles over Taipei and conducting simulated offensives in the skies and waters around Taiwan.  

Following Tsai’s meeting with McCarthy, China announced it would hold more military drills in the waters around Taiwan for three days as a “stern warning,” though the scale of the drills was far smaller than last year. China also imposed sanctions on the Hudson Institute and the Reagan Library for “providing a platform for and facilitating Tsai’s separatist activities.” But by and large, China’s reaction was far more restrained.  

This can be said for Washington and Taipei too. During his election campaign for the US House of Representatives in late 2022, McCarthy vowed that he would follow in the footsteps of his predecessor Pelosi to visit the island if he became House Speaker, which analysts warned could trigger another, and even more severe crisis in the Taiwan Straits.  

In early March, the Financial Times and Reuters reported that McCarthy initially planned to honor his pledge to visit Taiwan, but Tsai managed to persuade him to meet in the US instead. Tsai’s “stopover” in the US was low profile, with most of her events in the US closed to the media. And the joint statement released after the meeting between Tsai and McCarthy does not mention China directly.  

While most Western commentators attributed the change of location and overall low-key meeting to “security concerns” over possible retaliatory moves by China, the real reason may lie within Taiwan itself, where there has been a significant swing in public sentiment regarding Tsai’s handling of the cross-Straits relationship. 

Growing Distrust in the US 
In recent months, a major issue that has come under heated discussion and debates in Taiwan’s political discourse has been the rise of so-called “US skepticism.”  

The US has long adopted a policy of “strategic ambiguity” over whether it would intervene in the event of an armed conflict across the Taiwan Straits. But given its military dominance, most Taiwanese used to believe that US intervention is a no brainer or that the threat of the US intervening alone would be sufficient to deter the mainland from using force. However, after Pelosi’s visit last year, which triggered an unprecedented response from the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), many in Taiwan started to think twice about that assumption.  

During the 1996 Taiwan Straits crisis, the US sent two aircraft carriers to the waters near Taiwan in response to PLA missile tests. By comparison, during last year’s crisis, the US Navy was nowhere to be found in the waters near Taiwan. The PLA showed that it was no longer the outdated Soviet-style military three decades ago. It is now a high-tech military that can implement a de facto blockage of Taiwan, decimating the island’s economy without firing a shot. 

In the meantime, Washington has tried to use the Russia-Ukraine war to inject a sense of urgency for the island to boost its military buildup in preparing for a possible attack from across the Taiwan Strait. In December 2022, Tsai announced the extension of compulsory military service from four months to one year starting in 2024. Along with increased US arms sales to Taiwan, there are reports that Taiwan and the US are discussing establishing a fellowship program that would allow Americans to work in Taiwan’s legislative or executive offices to supervise the military.  

However, what the US has done during the war in the past year have led many analysts to worry that the US is transforming the island into a “porcupine” by arming the island in order to contain China.  

The US would “exert pressure on the sidelines without setting foot on the island to defend it,” said Woon Wei Jong, a media professional from Singapore-based Lianhe Zaobao in an opinion piece published on January 17 on thinkchina.sg, an e-magazine powered by Lianhe Zaobao.  

The change in public sentiment is manifest in various polls. When asked “Do you worry about Taiwan becoming a pawn used by the US to wrestle with China?” in an opinion poll conducted by the Taiwanese television channel TVBS in February, 44 percent of respondents said “yes,” slightly more than the 42 percent that said “no.”  

More recently, in another survey conducted by Taiwan’s Democratic Foundation in March, 55.4 percent of those surveyed believe the US is merely using Taiwan to contain China’s rise, and 62.3 percent said that cross-Strait matters should be resolved by the people on both sides and that US interference is making it harder to resolve.  

The rising distrust in the US, and therefore of the DPP, is believed to be a major reason behind the latter’s humiliating defeat in the “nine-in-one” local elections held in November 2022 for nine categories of public posts from mayors to heads of villages. The DPP won only five out of 21 constituencies. The opposition Kuomintang (KMT), which adopted the slogan that a “vote for the DPP and our youths will go to war,” nearly swept the map with a landslide victory.  

Following the DPP’s disastrous defeat, Tsai announced she was stepping down as DPP chairwoman and was replaced by her deputy Lai Ching-te. Having described himself as “a pragmatic independence worker,” Lai has registered as the DPP’s sole candidate to run for the island’s leadership election in 2024.  

In recent campaigns, Lai replaced the DPP’s “resisting China and protecting Taiwan” slogan with a new one: “Peaceful protection of Taiwan,” which the opposition quickly mocked for copying the KMT’s slogan.  

According to a poll released by ET today.net on March 25, in a two-way race between Lai and Hou Youyi, mayor of New Taipei and the leading candidate from the KMT to run for the election in 2024, Lai’s approval rate (37 percent) was slightly trailing Hou’s (39.5 percent).  

With the new political atmosphere in Taiwan, Tsai’s meeting with McCarthy in California instead of Taiwan may provide a chance for the DPP to reassure the Taiwanese public of Washington’s strong commitment to the island without provoking Beijing too much and triggering a new crisis. 

Protesters carrying Chinese national flags protest the ‘transit’ visit of Tsai Ing-wen, the leader of the Taiwan region, to the US, on March 29, 2023. They rallied near the Lotte New York Palace Hotel on Madison Avenue in New York City to protest against Tsai’s arrival (Photo by VCG)

Ma’s Mainland Trip 
Against this backdrop of swinging public sentiment, Taiwan’s former leader Ma Ying-jeou embarked on a 12-day trip to the Chinese mainland between March 27 to April 7, which almost entirely coincided with Tsai’s trip to the US and Central America from March 29 to April 7.  

Serving as Taiwan’s leader from 2008 and 2016, Ma remains a senior member of the KMT. Born in 1950 in Hong Kong to mainland parents from Hunan Province, Ma’s family moved to Taiwan in 1952.  

During his tenure as Taiwan leader, the two sides of the Taiwan Straits agreed to recognize the 1992 Consensus. The 1992 Consensus refers to the consensus reached in 1992 by the mainland-based Association for Relations Across the Taiwan Straits and the Taiwan-based Straits Exchange Foundation. They agreed to state that “the two sides of the Taiwan Strait both stick to the one-China principle.” The agreement helped stabilize cross-Straits relations and paved the way for closer economic ties between the two sides.  

In 2015, Xi Jinping and Ma held a historic meeting in Singapore, marking the first meeting between leaders from the two sides of the Taiwan Straits. But Ma was soon replaced by Tsai in 2016, who abandoned the 1992 Consensus, and relations have nose-dived ever since.  

As tensions continued to escalate, Ma repeatedly called to revive the 1992 Consensus, which is the political foundation of the cross-Straits relationship.  

Leading a youth delegation from Taiwan, Ma visited his ancestral home in Hunan Province. He also went to the cities of Wuhan, Changsha, Chongqing and Shanghai, and visited sites connected to the history of World War II, during which the KMT joined hands with the Communist Party of China in fighting against the Japanese invasion. In Nanjing, China’s capital during the KMT’s rule until 1949, Ma visited the Memorial Hall of the Victims in Nanjing Massacre by Japanese Invaders.  

Ma also paid a visit to the Sun Yat-sen Mausoleum in Nanjing. As the founding father of China’s republican revolution that overthrew the Qing Dynasty in 1912 and a co-founder of the KMT, Sun (1866-1925) is revered in both Taiwan and the mainland.  

“People on both sides of the Taiwan Straits are Chinese people, and are both descendants of the Yan and Yellow emperors,” Ma said in his speech at the Sun Yat-sen Mausoleum, referring to the semi-mythical rulers that are accredited for the first integration of the Chinese people.  

“We sincerely hope the two sides will work together to pursue peace, avoid war and strive to revitalize China... This is an unavoidable responsibility of Chinese people on both sides of the Straits, and we must work hard,” Ma added.  

On March 30, Song Tao, head of the Taiwan Work Office of the Communist Party of China Central Committee and the Taiwan Affairs Office of the State Council, met with Ma in Wuhan, Central China’s Hubei Province. Song conveyed the greetings from Xi Jinping, general secretary of the CPC Central Committee, to Ma, and both Song and Ma reiterated their commitment to adhering to the 1992 Consensus. Ma was also warmly received by high-level provincial CPC officials in Jiangsu, Hunan, Hubei and Chongqing. A group of Taiwan students led by Ma held talks with the mainland students in Fudan University, Hunan University and Wuhan University. 
Flying back to Taiwan on April 7, Ma told a group of supporters at Taipei’s Taoyuan Airport that Taiwan’s current leaders have led the Taiwanese people into a dangerous situation. “For Taiwan’s future, the choice is now peace or war,” Ma said.  

He called to reinstate the 1992 Consensus. “I have shown with my own actions that by adhering to the 1992 Consensus, respecting each other and seeking common ground while preserving our differences, we can restore the political foundation and resume communication and dialogues with the mainland, which is in the best interests of Taiwanese people,” Ma said.  

Arriving back at Taoyuan Airport the same day, Tsai gave her own vision for Taiwan’s future. “Taiwan will not be stopped from engaging with the world and will not give in to external pressure,” said Tsai. Thanking US Congress members for their support, Tsai said Taiwan is not alone.  

With the two sides of Taiwan politics now gear up for the next leadership election in 2024, Taiwan’s soul-searching for its position in the escalating antagonism between the US and China set to continue.