CHINA, TAIWAN — Frank Hsieh, the former chairman of Taiwan's pro-independence party, is touring China for a visit that he says is aimed at building mutual trust.
Hsieh, the most-senior official from the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) to tour China, is attempting to facilitate his party's relation with the mainland after it lost elections against the incumbent pro-Beijing candidate.
"Hopefully, footprints I make today will become a trail for future travelers," Hsieh said before leaving Taiwan, according to local media.
Hsieh and other DPP politicians, are seeking distance from more extreme pro-independence factions, after Taiwan voters confirmed their support for Ma Ying-jeou, champion of a more conciliatory stance with the mainland.
Although Hsieh said his visit is "in a private capacity" and that he will not meet with Chinese officials, many consider this an attempt to soften his party's China policy.
"The Democratic Progressive Party faces a very big challenge," says Jia Qingguo, a political science professor at Beijing University.
"If the cross-strait relation continues to develop like it has been, people in Taiwan will benefit from it, thus they will not support the pro-independence stance anymore," Jia says. "This is what Hsieh has in mind as he comes to China."
Beijing considers Taiwan a breakaway province and has pursued a policy of progressive economic engagement with the overt goal of reunification always in sight.
Hu Jintao, whose term as China's president and Communist Party chief is likely to end next month when the Party Congress will appoint new leaders, has subscribed to this approach.
Under his tenure, and with the help of Taiwan President Ma Ying-jeou, Taiwan and the mainland have negotiated unprecedented trade deals that reduced tariff barriers and are thought to have greatly benefited the Taiwanese side.
Huang Jing, director of the Center on Asia and Globalization at the Singapore-based Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, says the mainland, where business with Taiwan accounts for only four percentage points of China's entire international trade, has the upper hand in its negotiations with Taiwan.
"At least half of Taiwan's international trade is done with China," Huang says. "The trade with China has been so substantial in Taiwan's economy that they cannot afford to let this go."
Ever since 1949, when the nationalists retreated to Taiwan, Mao Zedong and the top Communist leaders that succeeded him have maintained a tough re-unification stance, which Huang believes, Hu Jintao revised.
"If you cannot achieve re-unification, at least you should close the door on Taiwan's independence," he says. "That is what Hu Jintao's policy is all about."
Both Jia Qingguo and Huang Jing believe that in dealing with Taiwan, exiting leader Hu Jintao has crafted a successful policy model, which will be followed by China's next collective of rulers.
"We have an old saying: if unbroken, why fix it?" Huang says. He adds that by increasing the mainland's economic clout over Taiwan the new leadership might further undermine the prospects of the island's independence, thus laying grounds for a peaceful re-unification down the road.
Huang acknowledges that there could be factors of instability.
Taiwan's alliance with the United States is both a military assurance and a potential hazard, should territorial disputes with Japan escalate to military conflict. China's economic slow down might negatively impact Taiwan, and growing Chinese nationalism in the mainland might force Chinese leaders to act more forcibly across the strait.
That is why, Huang says, maintaining the status quo is a priority for both governments.
"Any premature attempt from China's side to seek unification, or any premature attempt from Taiwan's side to reach independence is counterproductive and dangerous not just for China and Taiwan but for the whole regional peace," Huang says.
Frank Hsieh's first stop is in the Southeastern province of Fujian, where he will visit the coastal city of Xiamen, and his ancestral hometown. In Beijing, he will tour the Olympic stadium, attend an international cocktail contest, and meet with various academics from different research centers on Taiwanese studies.