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Former Taiwanese president Ma Ying-jeou writes calligraphy at the Sun Yat-sen Mausoleum in Nanjing, in China's eastern Jiangsu province, on March 28.HANDOUT/AFP/Getty Images

Former Taiwanese president Ma Ying-jeou continued an historic trip to China on Tuesday, travelling to Nanjing, which was once the capital of the Republic of China, as self-ruled Taiwan is still officially known.

Mr. Ma is the first former or sitting Taiwanese leader to visit the People’s Republic of China since the end of the Chinese civil war in 1949, when the defeated Nationalists fled across the Taiwan Strait, moving the seat of the ROC to Taipei. China’s Communist government, which has never controlled Taiwan, claims it as part of its territory, threatening to seize the island by force if necessary.

Speaking at a monument to revolutionary leader Sun Yat-sen, Mr. Ma said people on both sides of the strait “belong to the Chinese nation and are descendants of the Chinese people.”

“We sincerely hope that the two sides of the strait will work together to pursue peace, avoid war and revitalize the Chinese nation,” he said. “This is an unavoidable responsibility of the Chinese people on both sides of the strait.”

Polls in Taiwan show most people there do not primarily identify as Chinese, and strongly oppose unification with the mainland or rule from Beijing.

As president from 2008 to 2016, Mr. Ma pursued closer ties with China, holding an unprecedented meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping in Singapore in 2015. Fears of growing Chinese influence contributed to a landslide defeat for Mr. Ma’s Kuomintang (KMT) in 2016, however, bringing to power President Tsai Ing-wen of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP).

The DPP, traditionally more assertive of Taiwanese self-rule than the KMT, is viewed with intense suspicion and hostility by Beijing, which has continually ramped up pressure on Taiwan since Ms. Tsai was first elected, trying to reduce support for independence. This reached a height during a visit by then-U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi last year, when Beijing staged massive military drills around Taiwan and fired missiles over it.

Seemingly to avoid a similar standoff, Ms. Tsai’s next meeting with a U.S. official will be under different circumstances: she will meet Ms. Pelosi’s successor, Republican Kevin McCarthy, in the United States either this month or early next, as she transits the country around a trip to Central America.

Ms. Tsai is due to begin that trip Wednesday, under the shadow of not only Mr. Ma’s presence in China, but also Honduras’s recent decision to cut off ties with Taipei and establish diplomatic relations with Beijing.

Speaking after that news Sunday, Ms. Tsai accused China of using “any and all means to suppress Taiwan’s international participation, intensify its military intimidations against Taiwan and disrupt regional peace and stability.”

“Pressure and coercion will not change the fact that the Republic of China and the People’s Republic of China are not subordinate to each other,” she added. “And they cannot erode the Taiwanese people’s staunch commitment to freedom and democracy or our determination to engage wholeheartedly with the world.”

While Mr. Ma no longer holds any official role in either the government or the KMT, he faced criticism in Taiwan for going ahead with the China trip after the news. Hsiao Hsu-ten, a spokesman for Mr. Ma, blamed the DPP and Ms. Tsai for losing Honduras, the ninth country to break ties with Taiwan since 2016, saying it “highlights the importance of normalizing cross-strait relations.”

The ability to do so will likely be the KMT’s major pitch to voters ahead of a presidential election early next year. The party is currently riding a high after sweeping local elections last November, though these were dominated by domestic issues rather than relations with China, which tend to consume the presidential race.

“The KMT’s selling point forever has been we can have meaningful relations with China,” said Lev Nachman, an assistant professor in politics at Taiwan’s National Chengchi University.

However, he was skeptical whether Mr. Ma’s trip would aid the party in any way, saying it was likely too far out from the election.

“If the KMT had a nominee and the nominee had to make a comment on Ma going to China, then it might be a big deal, but they don’t even have a nominee yet,” he said. “Ma is doing this for his own political legacy more than he’s doing it on behalf of the KMT.”

Mr. Ma will not visit Beijing nor meet with any senior Chinese officials, a move that would be hugely controversial back home as it could be seen as undermining Taipei. Ms. Tsai’s government has been repeatedly rebuffed by Beijing in attempts to hold talks over various cross-strait issues.

Chinese state media coverage of Mr. Ma’s trip has so far been relatively muted, quoting him approvingly on shared identity as “former Taiwan regional leader.”

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