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Analysts: Former Taiwan President’s China Trip Could Shed Light on Xi’s Intentions

FILE - In this photo released by Xinhua News Agency, former Taiwan President Ma Ying-jeou, left, makes a libation as he paying respect to his grandfather's tomb in Xiangtan county, in central China's Hunan province, April 1, 2023.
FILE - In this photo released by Xinhua News Agency, former Taiwan President Ma Ying-jeou, left, makes a libation as he paying respect to his grandfather's tomb in Xiangtan county, in central China's Hunan province, April 1, 2023.

Taiwan’s former President Ma Ying-jeou is scheduled to make an 11-day trip to China in early April.

The trip will include stops in the southern province of Guangdong, the northwestern province of Shaanxi, and the capital Beijing, where Ma, according to reports, may meet with Chinese leader Xi Jinping.

Some experts say that if the meeting happens, not only can Xi use it to send signals to Taiwan and the United States, but it could help Washington learn more about Xi's intentions toward the island.

Earlier this week, Ma's office announced that the visit will begin on April 1. The trip will include a speech at Sun Yat-sen University in Guangdong, a worshiping ceremony for the Yellow Emperor at the Shaanxi Huangdi Mausoleum, and a speech at Peking University.

Taiwanese online news site The Storm Media reported that the meeting between Ma and Xi will be held on April 8. However, Hsiao Hsu-tsen, director of Ma Ying-jeou Culture and Education Foundation, said in a radio interview on March 26 that the itinerary ­has not been finalized.

Lu-chung Weng, an associate professor of political science at Sam Houston State University, told VOA Mandarin in an emailed response that if Ma and Xi really meet, Xi will probably use this occasion to emphasize Beijing's one-China principle and that the 1992 Consensus remains the basis for cross-strait exchanges and dialogues.

"The signal Xi wants to send to both sides of the Taiwan Strait would be to emphasize that peaceful reunification is still Beijing's priority and that anyone who accepts the one-China principle can negotiate,” he said.

“Relatively speaking, it also highlights that if President-elect Lai Ching-te insists on not accepting the 1992 Consensus as the premise of one China in his inaugural speech on May 20, it will be difficult for the two sides to have a dialogue. In other words, Xi would use Ma to emphasize that the ‘1992 Consensus’ is the basis for exchanges,” he added.

Although Ma accepted the “1992 Consensus” while he was in office, the current President Tsai Ing-wen did not, and China rolled back tourism and other exchanges in response. Lai, who is from the same party as Tsai, is expected to follow in her footsteps.

For some, the “1992 Consensus” is the same as accepting Beijing’s position that democratically ruled Taiwan is a part of China. Others believe it can be interpreted as meaning that there's one China, with both the People's Republic of China and the Republic of China, Taiwan's official name, free to define what that means.

Weng said that during the meeting, Xi may also respond to recent U.S. concerns about China's possible invasion of Taiwan in 2027. U.S. officials have repeatedly warned that Beijing has ordered its military to be prepared by that year to invade Taiwan.

Adm. John Aquilino, commander of the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command, said during a congressional hearing last week that despite China's economic slowdown, the People's Liberation Army is still actively modernizing its military. He said all signs show the People's Liberation Army is following Xi's instructions to "prepare to invade Taiwan by 2027."

Weng said a Ma-Xi meeting will be an opportunity to gain more insight into Beijing's plans for Taiwan.

"If Xi really meets former President Ma, the U.S. can be sure that Xi's challenges are indeed not small,” Weng said. “It will also send a signal that he will be focused more on 'peaceful reunification,' and that he will not take action in the short term.”

This does not mean China will not change its path in the future, he added, but at least for now "the U.S. can use the Ma-Xi meeting to determine that there is still time to prepare in the short term."

Ma’s trip to China comes just weeks before the inauguration of Taiwan President-elect Lai Ching-te. Lai’s inauguration will be held on May 20 and many will be watching his speech for signs of how he will approach relations with China.

Chiaoning Su, a professor at the School of Communication at Oakland University in Michigan, told VOA Mandarin that while Lai's inaugural speech will give priority to domestic affairs, relations with China will inevitably come up.

"Lai Ching-te has repeatedly said that he will continue Tsai Ing-wen's framework, so both sides of the Taiwan Strait welcome closer dialogue and exchanges on the premise of equality and dignity, and that he does not want any conflicts to occur,” she said.

Lai “will maintain this tone and make some pledges regarding his cross-strait policies.”

Adrianna Zhang contributed to this report.