- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 13, 2008

TAIPEI, Taiwan | Taiwan President Ma Ying-jeou headed to Latin America on Tuesday, on his first trip overseas since taking office three months ago, in a bid to shore up ties with Taipei’s allies in the region.

Mr. Ma, traveling on a regular commercial flight rather than a chartered jet, was expected to make an overnight stop in Los Angeles before flying to Paraguay and the Dominican Republic.

The two countries are among the 23 nations that recognize Taiwan rather than China, from which the island split in 1949 after a civil war.

Mr. Ma, who won the presidency in a landslide in March and took office on May 20, called for an end to decades of diplomatic maneuvering with rival China as part of a wider bid to improve ties.

In a brief speech ahead of his departure, Mr. Ma called for a “cease-fire” on the diplomatic front so both sides could “put an end to the vicious struggles.”

Taiwan and China have in the past used “checkbook diplomacy,” or generous financial packages, to ensure the loyalty of governments or persuade them to switch allegiance, especially in Africa, Latin America and the Pacific.

In Paraguay, Mr. Ma will attend the inauguration Friday of President-elect Fernando Lugo, a leftist ex-bishop elected in April who is reportedly seeking to normalize ties with Beijing.

Mr. Ma also will attend the presidential inauguration of the Dominican Republic’s Leonel Fernandez on Saturday.

He is scheduled to return home Aug. 19, with an overnight stopover in San Francisco.

Mr. Ma’s predecessor, Chen Shui-bian, who retired in May, often pushed for high-profile stopovers in the United States during trips abroad, angering Washington, which recognizes Beijing but maintains close ties with Taipei.

Mr. Ma pledged to repair Taipei’s ties with Washington, which he said had been fractured by Mr. Chen’s pro-independence rhetoric.

Washington has remained the leading arms supplier to Taiwan despite its switching of diplomatic recognition from Taipei to Beijing in 1979.

Mr. Ma has been low key about the trip in a bid to avoid irking Washington and Beijing.

“This is a pure transit. … We will not engage in any activities which are incompatible with the transit,” he said.

The most visible sign yet in the thaw of the Taipei-Beijing tensions came July 4 when more than 700 Chinese tourists flew to the island on the first direct regular charter flights in nearly six decades.

Mr. Ma’s administration also has allowed more Chinese tourists to visit the island and relaxed controls on China-bound investments.

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