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A few hours ago, Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen arrived at her hotel in New York where she is transiting en route to a 10-day visit to treaty allies Guatemala and Belize followed by a return transit stop in Los Angeles on her way home. Three days ago, former Taiwan President Ma Ying-jeou arrived in Shanghai to start an 11-day, multi-city visit focused on educational exchange and paying his respects to his ancestral home. Tsai Ing-wen’s transit stops in the U.S. are hardly unprecedented — she has made six — but comes at a time of unprecedented tension in the U.S.-China relationship. Ma Ying-jeou’s visit to the mainland is flat-out unprecedented. Since the establishment of the Peoples Republic of China in 1949, no Taiwanese former President has ever set foot there. Today, and over the next week and a half, the world will be witnessing a historic split-screen.

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During my time as the head of the Commercial Section at the American Institute in Taiwan from 1999 to 2002, I met quite often with both Tsai Ing-wen and Ma Ying-jeou. I have a sense of their personalities and their values. What is behind their divergent itineraries right now is of course politics. Tsai Ing-wen is the incumbent President and leader of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP). Ma Ying-jeou is a former President and the elder statesman of the Kuomintang (KMT), Chiang Kai-shek’s party which fought with the Chinese Communist Party in the mainland and then fled to Taiwan in 1949.

Taiwan’s next Presidential election — in which Tsai Ing-wen is ineligible to run having served two terms — happens next February. Ma Ying-jeou’s visit to the mainland is inextricably tied up with that upcoming election. Tsai Ing-wen’s visit is not disconnected from that upcoming election but is more entangled with steadily worsening U.S.-China relations and the continuing fall-out from then House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan last August.

Over the next two weeks, I will have occasion to post commentary here on what transpires during these two trips and what they portend for the coming months. Today’s Historic Split-Screen post is just to set that stage.

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