Former Taiwan President Ma Ying-jeou on Monday kicked off a 12-day trip to China, making the first visit to the mainland by a former leader of the island since the two sides split in 1949 due to a civil war.
Ma, a senior member of Taiwan's main opposition Nationalist Party, is scheduled to travel to cities including Shanghai, Nanjing, and Wuhan and meet with local students, according to the China-friendly political party, also called the Kuomintang (KMT).
Beijing is not included in his itinerary, but Ma may meet with a high-ranking Chinese official during his visit. In February, KMT Vice Chairman Andrew Hsia held talks with senior Chinese officials during his trip to the mainland.
The visit by Ma, who met with Chinese President Xi Jinping in a historic summit in 2015 in Singapore, comes amid increased Chinese military pressure on the self-ruled democratic island and efforts to wean allies away from it, with Honduras becoming the latest state to switch its diplomatic recognition from Taipei to Beijing.
However, Beijing seems to be adjusting its hard-line policy ahead of the Taiwanese presidential election slated for next January, with the Chinese leadership recently stressing the mainland's desire to advance a process of "peaceful reunification" with the island.
Cross-strait relations have deteriorated since Tsai Ing-wen of the independence-leaning Democratic Progressive Party became the island's president in 2016.
Some DPP members have criticized Ma's trip days after Honduras severed ties with Taipei in favor of Beijing, urging the former leader to cancel the mainland visit to protest the establishment of relations between China and the Central American country announced on Saturday.
Taiwan contends China used economic incentives to lure Honduras, the ninth country to cut ties with Taiwan since Tsai became president.
Ma told reporters before his departure from a Taipei airport that he was "glad" to visit the mainland, while some protesters called him a "traitor."
Beijing has welcomed Ma's China trip, with Ma Xiaoguang, a spokesman for the Taiwan Affairs Office of the State Council last week expressing Beijing's readiness to facilitate his journey, during which the former leader will pay respects to his ancestors ahead of the Qingming tomb-sweeping festival on April 5.
The spokesman stressed that honoring ancestors is a tradition shared by people on both sides of the Taiwan Strait. Ma was born in Hong Kong and his ancestors' graves are located in China's Hunan Province.
He also hailed the youth exchanges planned during the trip by Ma, who will be joined by a group of Taiwanese students, saying they can "create new impetus for the peaceful development" of cross-strait relations.
During the trip, Ma is scheduled to visit spots related to Chinese revolutionary and KMT founder Sun Yat-sen and the memorial dedicated to victims of the 1937 Nanjing Massacre committed by Japanese troops.
Even though Communist-led China has never ruled Taiwan, it regards the island as a renegade province to be unified with the mainland by force if necessary.