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D.C. Or Beijing? Two High-Stakes Trips — And Taiwan's Divided Future On The Line

Two presidents of Taiwan, the current serving president, Tsai Ing-wen, and her predecessor, Ma Ying-jeou from the opposition Kuomintang party, are traveling in opposite directions these days. Taiwan must choose whom to follow.

Photo of Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen

Tsai Ing-wen, the President of Taiwan

Pierre Haski


PARIS — Tsai Ing-wen, the President of Taiwan, is traveling to the United States today. Not on an official trip because Taiwan is not a state recognized by Washington, but in transit, en route to Central America, a strategy that allows her to pass through New York and California.

Ma Ying-jeou, a former president of Taiwan, arrived yesterday in Shanghai: he is making a 12-day visit at the invitation of the Chinese authorities at a time of high tension between China and the United States, particularly over the fate of Taiwan.

It would be difficult to make these two trips more contrasting, as both have the merit of summarizing at a glance the decisive political battle that is coming. Presidential and legislative elections will be held in January 2024 in Taiwan, which could well determine Beijing's attitude towards the island that China claims by all means, including force.

Tsai Ing-wen, Taiwan's president since 2016, comes from the Democratic Progressive Party, a party with pro-independence roots, even if it is careful not to utter this taboo word. She embodies Taiwan's resistance to Beijing's ambitions, and will seek the support the island's needs from the United States.

Beijing protest

During her visit, Ms. Tsai will meet with Kevin McCarthy, the Republican Speaker of the House of Representatives, Nancy Pelosi's successor. You will recall Beijing's reaction to Ms. Pelosi's visit to Taipei last summer: an unprecedented four-day military blockade of the island by the Chinese military.

Beijing has already protested the Tsai-McCarthy meeting.Ma Ying-jeou belongs to the Kuomintang, the former nationalist party of Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek, Mao's rival, who took refuge in Taiwan after his defeat in 1949. The Kuomintang is in favor of reunification with China, even if it is content to advocate, at first, better relations with the mainland, and more if that works out well.

The 24 million Taiwanese inhabitants will have to take a stance between these two positions in a year's time, in a climate that promises to be more than turbulent.

Photo of Ma Ying-jeou and  Xi Jinping during a meeting in Singapore in 2015

Former Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou and Chinese President Xi Jinping during a meeting in Singapore in 2015

Office of the President, ROC (Taiwan)

Brutal normalization

China knows that the evolution of Taiwanese opinion is unfavorable to it. Young people in particular are attached to the democratic system and the freedoms guaranteed on the island. It fears, in case of Beijing's takeover, to suffer the fate of Hong Kong in 2019, a brutal normalization.

While the Kuomintang is still capable of winning local elections, as it did last year, it is at a disadvantage in national elections because of its proximity to Beijing, reinforced by the visit of the former president.

China, however, has not given up on trying to win the Kuomintang, using a combination of threats of war in the event of a DPP victory, promises of increased economic ties, and less overt methods of destabilization and influence. The Taiwanese aren't expecting anything between now and the January election.

Tsai Ing-wen's trip to New York and Ma Ying-jeou's trip to Beijing look like a dress rehearsal for the decisive battle ahead.

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