Ma Ying-jeou and the Future of Cross-Strait Relations

Publication: China Brief Volume: 8 Issue: 7

While Ma Ying-jeou’s landslide victory at the presidential polls has lowered tension in the Taiwan Strait, and injected a shot of morphine into Taiwan’s stock market, it is premature and unrealistic to expect a leap forward in Taipei-Beijing ties any time soon. The future of cross-Strait relations post-Chen Shui-bian has been complicated by the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) “people’s war” against the Tibetan followers of the Dalai Lama in recent weeks. Ma and his Kuomintang (KMT) or Nationalists Party will also have to handle the Democratic Progressive Party’s (DPP) dogged scrutiny of any move by the KMT that could be construed as a concession toward Beijing—in other words, attempts by KMT to sell out the interests of native Taiwanese.

In last Saturday’s elections, Ma garnered 58.45 percent of the 13.1 million ballots cast, versus DPP candidate Frank Hsieh’s 41.55 percent. The 17 percent margin—which exceeded the KMT’s best expectations—is a formidable mandate for the Harvard-educated Ma to reinvigorate Taiwan’s economy and improve ties with Beijing. Moreover, the two UN referendums, which were held simultaneously on election day, were vetoed because only 35 percent of Taiwan’s electorate bothered to vote on either the DPP’s motion of joining the United Nations under the name of Taiwan or the KMT’s version of “rejoining” the UN under “Republic of China” or “any other suitable name.” It’s worth pointing out that a little over a week before election day, the KMT announced that it was boycotting the referenda, first telling its supporters not to vote in the DPP’s referendum and that its supporters do not have to vote in the KMT’s UN referendum either (RTI [Taiwan], March 12). Since last year, Beijing has condemned the referenda as a “dangerous step” taken by Taipei to seek de jure independence, and the United States has issued equally stern rebukes on the UN referenda, calling them “provocative” (Taipei Times, March 23; United Daily News (Taiwan), March 23).

The president-elect wasted no time in laying out his blueprint for “100 years of peace in the Strait.” In his post-election press conference on Sunday, Ma said his first goal was the normalization of economic relations with the mainland. These included regular chartered flights leading to scheduled commercial flights; more mainland Chinese tourists visiting Taiwan; and Beijing’s liberalization of regulations on Taiwanese financial firms setting up shop in Chinese cities. Ma said he hoped these breakthroughs would smooth the way toward a Free Trade Agreement with the mainland, which would underpin the multi-dimensional “cross-Strait common market.” As medium-term goals, Ma, who headed Taiwan’s cabinet-level Mainland Affairs Council (MAC) in the early 1990s, cited a cross-Strait “peace accord” and related agreements on confidence-building measures to minimize the possibility of confrontation between the two militaries. The president-elect also wanted a pledge by the CCP leadership to respect Taiwan’s long-standing crusade to expand its “international space,” including some form of participation in global organizations such as the World Health Organization (China Times [Taiwan], March 23; New York Times, March 23).

Ma also reiterated his earlier reassurances to the CCP authorities that the KMT administration would not seek de jure independence during his tenure based on his “three-no’s” policy. The president-elect was at pains to point out that Taipei would be a “responsible stakeholder, not a troublemaker” in the global community. This was a not-so-subtle criticism of how incumbent president Chen Shui-bian had, in his eight-year time in office, antagonized both Beijing and Washington by “pushing the envelope” toward full-fledged Taiwan independence. More significantly, Ma acknowledged on Sunday that the “1992 consensus” between Taipei’s quasi-official Straits Exchange Foundation (SEF) and its Beijing counterpart, the Association for Relations across the Taiwan Strait (ARATS)—“one China, however interpreted [by both sides]”—was a “big step forward” in terms of being a basis for negotiating bilateral economic and technical issues (Ming Pao, March 24).

Since the late 1990s, the CCP leadership has dangled the recognition of the “one China principle” as the precondition of and basis for “reunification talks” between both sides. At a press conference at the National People’s Congress (NPC) earlier this month, Premier Wen Jiabao indicated that “if Taiwan authorities [are willing to] recognize the ‘one China principle,’ anything can be put on the negotiation table” (Xinhua News Agency, March 18). It is important to note, however, that for Beijing, the “one China principle” means that “Taiwan is part of China.” Yet for Ma, the “one China, however interpreted” precept is merely a theoretical contraption that underscores his policy of “mutual non-denial,” that is “neither side will deny the existence of the other.” Moreover, the KMT leadership merely wants the “1992 consensus” to pave the way for negotiations over “substantive” issues such as trade and investments—not the goal of national reunification. In recognition of the fact that the great majority of Taiwan’s 23 million residents want the continuation of the status quo, Ma has repeatedly stressed that he will never enter into “reunification talks” with Beijing during his tenure. Despite the DPP’s defeat in both the presidential and parliamentary polls this year, the DPP has the experience and clout to mobilize hundreds of thousands of supporters to protest government actions that could be construed as “selling out the interests of native Taiwanese.”

In the near term, the only concrete manifestation of much-improved cross-Strait vibes generated by the KMT’s thrashing of the DPP will most likely be the inauguration this summer of weekly chartered direct flights between seven Taiwan cities and as many counterparts in central and coastal China. A substantial increase of Taiwan-bound mainland tourists is also in the works. These rosy scenarios for the Taiwan economy pushed the local stock market index up by nearly four percent on Monday, which resulted in a NT$1 trillion boost in the market value of companies listed on Taiwan’s Taiex index. Major initiatives, however, such as the formation of a “cross-Strait common market” or a “peace accord” may not be feasible in the coming year or so. The most important reason is that while the CCP leadership definitely welcomes a humiliating defeat for the DPP, it has reservations about Ma’s politics, particularly his insipid views toward the mainland.

It is well-known that while Ma has “nationalist” and patriotic inclinations, he is a fervent anti-Communist—and an ardent critic of China’s shabby record in the areas of democracy and human rights. This is despite the fact that KMT heavyweights, including former chairman Lien Chan, have seldom made negative comments about domestic Chinese politics. In his victory speech, Ma noted that “freedom and democracy” were the core values of Taiwan and that he would never compromise Taiwan’s sovereign status and the interests of its people. He is perhaps the only well-known Taiwan politician who has attended all the annual memorials marking the June 4, 1989 Tiananmen Square Massacre. Several years ago, he famously said that “unless Beijing overturns the verdict on Tiananmen Square, there will be no hope for national reunification” (United Evening News (Taiwan), March 23). Soon after the outbreak of large-scale Tibetan demonstrations earlier this month, Ma suggested the possibility of Taipei boycotting the Olympic Games. At his post-election press conference, Ma qualified his Olympics statement by saying that he would only consider a no-show for the Taiwan team if repression of Tibetans were to worsen in the coming months. The president-elect, however, reiterated his “support for Tibetan autonomy,” adding that he would be happy to invite the Dalai Lama to visit Taiwan. Ma said that he did not think his rigorous stance on human rights and Tibet would hurt ties with Beijing. “Our relations with China are multi-faceted,” he indicated. “While we shall continue to criticize China’s human rights record, this will not hamper progress in many aspects of cross-Strait relations.” This is despite the general expectation that once Ma has assumed the presidency and started the arduous process of beginning a dialogue with Beijing, he might have to couch his personal views on human rights and other domestic Chinese issues in more diplomatic terms.

How will Beijing handle a Ma presidency? Both President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen began displaying signs of flexibility and conciliation earlier this year, probably in anticipation of the triumph of the popular KMT leader. For example, Hu said early this month that even Taiwanese who had taken part in separatist activities “would be welcomed with enthusiasm and treated with sincerity” provided that they embrace the “correct path of the peaceful development of cross-Strait ties.” Wen indicated during his NPC press conference that Beijing would “continue to expand the parameters of economic exchanges with Taiwan and raise the level of cooperation” in the areas of investment, trade, tourism and finance (People’s Daily, March 5; Xinhua, March 18). This was despite the fact that Wen’s press conference statement that Taiwan and Tibet have the same status in Beijing’s eyes raised a hailstorm of criticism in Taiwan (Central News Agency [Taiwan], March 18).

So far, however, Beijing’s reaction to the Ma victory has been low-key. In a brief statement to Taiwan reporters moments after the announcement of Ma’s triumph, spokesman of Beijing’s cabinet-level Taiwan Affairs Office Li Weiyi said the defeat of the UN-related referendums showed that the cause of “separatism does not have the support of [the] Taiwan people.” As for the presidential polls, Li said Beijing had “taken note of the results of the election of the leader of the Taiwan region.” The spokesman did not even mention Ma’s name (China Times [Taiwan], March 23). Experts in cross-Strait relations in both Taipei and Beijing have expressed skepticism that much progress in cross-Strait ties could be made in the near term. “The atmosphere between both sides has improved because Beijing has more trust in the KMT,” said Chen Teh-sheng, a China specialist at Taipei’s National Chengchi University. He noted, however, that Ma would move cautiously on dealings with the mainland because he has to take into consideration the views of the nearly 5.5 million Taiwanese who voted for the DPP. Li Jiaquan, former head of the Taiwan Institute of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, anticipated progress in economic and tourism links across the Straits. Yet he raised objections to Ma’s preconditions for opening talks on a peace pact: the removal of the 1,000-odd missiles in bases in Fujian and Zhejiang provinces that are targeting Taiwan. “These missiles are aimed at separatists, not the Taiwan people,” said Li, who advises the CCP leadership on Taiwan issues. “They are defensive in nature—to protect China’s territorial integrity” (ETTV news [Taiwan], March 24; United Daily News, March 23).

A Chinese source familiar with the CCP’s Taiwan policymaking thinking noted that apart from relatively non-controversial issues such as scheduled direct flights, it was unlikely that Beijing would take concrete measures to reciprocate Ma’s expressions of goodwill any time soon. He cited the leadership’s preoccupation with national security in this “Olympic year,” particularly after the spate of demonstrations by Tibetans and the Western world’s criticism of Beijing’s ironfisted suppression of the protestors and then “rioters.” “Few senior cadres buy the conspiracy theory of collusion between the ‘Dalai Lama clique’ and Taiwan,” he said. “However, the leadership’s consensus is that it must exercise utmost caution regarding policies toward Tibet, Xinjiang and Taiwan.”

The extent to which Beijing is willing to go in cross-Strait rapprochement could be gauged by its attitude toward Taipei’s long-standing campaign to gain observer status in the World Health Organization (WHO) and related bodies in which statehood is not requisite for entry. The WHO’s governing council and the World Health Assembly is due to meet during the week beginning May 19, one day before Ma’s inauguration as president. At his post-election press conference, Ma called upon Beijing to demonstrate more flexibility on the issue. He noted that unlike the Chen Shui-bian administration, which applied for WHO observer status under the name of “Taiwan,” he would observe “international norms” as far as the island’s designation is concerned. Another litmus test of Beijing’s Taiwan policy in the Ma Ying-jeou era would be the CCP leadership’s views on a trip that president-elect Ma would like to make to the United States before May 20. The possibilities of an imminent American tour for Ma were raised after his meeting with Washington’s top representative in Taiwan, Stephen Young, one day after the elections (Taipei Times, March 25). Beijing had in the past raised objections to top Taiwan leaders visiting the United States particularly if the latter were scheduled to meet with senior U.S. officials or members of Congress.

Diplomatic analysts in both Taipei and Beijing agree that given the recent anti-Beijing demonstrations in Tibet and neighboring provinces—and the CCP leadership’s anxiety to calm things down in the run-up to the Olympics—it is unlikely that Beijing will take the risk of a faux pas on the Taiwan front. The analysts say President Hu, who is noted for his cautious approach to issues involving China’s sovereignty and Chinese nationalism, will likely wait until year-end or early next year before he will contemplate a page-turning overture to Taipei. In the meantime, the TAO and other Taiwan-related units in China will be scrutinizing mainland-related statements by Ma. Without the possibility of genuine give-and-take with the other side, however, Ma, who has his own reasons to avoid being seen as overzealous in building bridges across the Strait, may also adopt a “cool it” attitude toward mainland affairs. The upshot is that any significant step forward in Taiwan-China relations may only take place toward the middle if not the second half of Ma’s four-year term.