Hong Kong extended a red carpet welcome to the mayor of Taipei on Sunday, in yet another sign of warming ties between Taiwan and its rival, communist China.
Ma Ying-jeou, rising star of Taiwan's opposition Nationalist Party which advocates Taiwan-China reunification, was ushered through the VIP exit at Hong Kong's airport on arrival.
There, he was greeted by Paul Yip, one of Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa's closest aides tasked with tackling Hong Kong-Taiwan affairs. He was then whisked off to his hotel.
Ma will sit down to tea with Tung on Tuesday, making him the most senior elected Taiwan official to meet the Hong Kong leader since Britain handed Hong Kong back to China in 1997.
Political analysts say Ma's visit is but the latest in a series of attempts by China to isolate Taiwan President Chen Shui-bian of the pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party.
Ma's Nationalist Party calls for reunification with a democratic China - an advocacy more acceptable to Beijing.
The warm welcome extended to Ma on Sunday contrasts sharply with the arrival of Taiwan's de facto envoy to Hong Kong, Chang Liang-jen, last month after a year-long dispute over his visa.
Chang used the ordinary exit at Hong Kong's airport, was not met by any Hong Kong official and has yet to meet Tung.
PLAYS DOWN POLITICS
Ma, however, downplayed the political significance of his five-day visit at a news conference in his hotel.
"I'm here on a city-to-city discussion. As to high-level cross-straits matters, that is not on our agenda... Taiwan has not entrusted me with such a mission," Ma said.
He kept at arms length the idea of a Taiwan-China reunification based on the "one country, two systems" concept under which Hong Kong reverted to Chinese rule with the promise of a high degree of autonomy.
"We hope the 'one country, two systems' can be successful in Hong Kong. Whether three years is sufficient time to assess its success is subjective," Ma said.
"But no matter how successful it is in Hong Kong, I think the situation in Taiwan is different," he added. "It does not mean that what's good for Hong Kong can be applied on Taiwan."
Taipei and Beijing have been political rivals since the Communists won the Chinese civil war and drove the defeated Nationalist forces into exile on Taiwan in 1949.
Beijing has long offered to reunify with Taiwan based on the "one country, two systems" formula.
HK'S PLACE IN DIRECT CHINA-TAIWAN LINKS
Ma did not expect Hong Kong to be severely affected should Taiwan and China set up full direct trade, transport and postal links.
"A lot of Taiwan exports to Southeast Asia are transhipped through Hong Kong... (after direct links) some of this traffic will be reduced, but the volume won't be very large," he said.
China has long demanded full direct links in the hope it will help lead to reunification with Taiwan, but Taiwan has so far baulked at lifting its 51-year-old ban on such direct ties.
Taiwan gave a small but symbolic concession in January by opening direct links to the mainland from two Taiwan-held islands of Matsu and Quemoy under what is known as the "mini three links".
During his visit, Ma will attend a Hong Kong-Taipei city development seminar, meet tourism, transport and city development officials and visit a school and geriatric home.
"We hope to expand our discussion with Hong Kong to include culture, education and other areas," Ma said.