China's top negotiator on Taiwan affairs left on Monday for the self-ruled island that Beijing claims as its own on a historic trip on which trade and transit deals are expected to be signed as opposition leaders protest.
Chen Yunlin, the highest-level Chinese official to land on the island in decades, is due to stay until Friday to sign agreements on cargo shipments, direct flights and global financial cooperation. China has claimed sovereignty over Taiwan since 1949, when Mao Zedong's Communists won the Chinese civil war and Chiang Kai-shek's KMT fled to Taiwan.
Beijing has vowed to bring Taiwan under its rule, by force if necessary. But since China-friendly Taiwan President Ma Ying-jeou took office in May, relations have thawed with a series of trade and transit deals, including permission for as many as 3,000 Chinese tourists to visit the once largely forbidden island per day.
But tourist numbers have not met expectations. China rigorously screens citizens for proof they intend to return from the relatively well-off island after their tours, which Taipei blames in part for keeping visitors down. "The scale of the reception is extraordinary," Shane Lee, a political science professor at Chang Jung University in Taiwan, said of Chen's visit.
"It's the equivalent of red-carpet treatment granted to only very high dignitaries." Chen is travelling with 60 people and will stay at a hillside venue ringed by police and barricades. Negotiations begin on Tuesday. The two sides are also expected to discuss direct postal links and the global financial crisis.
But from Monday night, Taiwan's main opposition party, concerned that Taiwan is getting too close to China, is set to begin a three-day protest sit-in outside the parliament building in Taipei and expand the demonstration on Thursday.
"If Ma's government keeps talking like this to China, it definitely has political implications," said Cheng Wen-tsang, spokesman for the opposition Democratic Progressive Party, which favours formal independence from China. Earlier this month, demonstrators in the southern Taiwan city of Tainan pushed a visiting Chinese official to the ground, outraging Beijing.