Taiwan’s Ma plays it cool

For Asia Times Online www.atimes.com

TAIPEI – Taiwanese president Ma Ying-jeou was widely expected to embed a formula for unification with China into his re-inauguration speech on Sunday. Perhaps the embattled leader, whose approval ratings have fallen to as low as 20%, wanted to do so. However, he also had to toe the line with Washington. 

While tens of thousands of demonstrators occupied Taipei’s streets, protesting against energy price hikes and the lifting of a

  
ban on imports of US beef Ma’s government has been pushing for Ma was bowing to an oil painting of Sun Yat-sen, the first president and founding father of the Republic of China (ROC). 

After his swearing-in ceremony for a second and final four-year term, and after local media went into overdrive because Ma had walked into the presidential office somewhat impolitely in front of his wife, Ma took to the podium. 

Observers now listened closer than usual, because earlier this year Ma described cross-strait relations with the term “one country, two areas”, raising expectations that this inaugural speech would contain broad hints that Taiwan had agreed to unification. 

Such obvious concessions were conspicuous by their absence. Ma merely reiterated what he had said many times before, that he would continue to pursue peace across the Taiwan Strait and maintain the cross-strait “status quo”. He once again emphasized his “three nos” – no unification, no independence and no use of force. 

While acknowledging that both mainland China and Taiwan belonged to China, he kept insisting that the “China” in his formula stands for Taipei’s ROC as opposed to Beijing’s People’s Republic of China (PRC). 

Further cementing the notion that Taiwan was not up for unification any time soon, Ma – neither in his speech nor in the subsequent press conference – indicated that Taiwan’s purchases of foreign-made weapons were to stop. He praised the island’s defense industry, denied that a cross-strait peace agreement was on the horizon and then took on China’s dismal human-rights record. 

“Ever since [June 4] 1989 [Tiananmen crackdown on reform protesters], I have personally paid close attention to China’s human-rights issues; last year, I lent support to [Chinese dissident artist] Ai Weiwei,” Ma said. “Human rights play a very important role in cross-strait relations.” 

He took further aim at Beijing but only very cryptically. In lines directed across the Taiwan Strait, Ma expressed himself so obscurely that his message was barely comprehensible to most foreigners among the audience. 

“People on both sides of the Taiwan Strait are the descendants of the Yan and Huang emperors,” Ma said. 

Among the ancient Chinese rulers referred to, the latter defeated the former, causing their two people to merge their cultures into what then became the Chinese civilization. 

In interviews with Asia Times Online, political scientists in Taipei differed greatly in their appraisals of what happened on Sunday in Taiwan’s Presidential Office Building. 

George Tsai, professor at the Chinese Culture University, gave it an “A”. 

“Ma’s speech stuck to what he believes in. He emphasized that cross-strait relations have to be handled under the ROC constitution, and that the ‘one country’ in ‘one country, two areas’ refers to the ROC,” Tsai said. 

He then pointed out that it was important that Ma at the same time extended significant goodwill to Beijing. “He mentioned that people on the mainland and in Taiwan both belong to the Chinese race. The other side wanted to hear this.” 

Tsai noted that Ma advised China to allow more democracy and protect human rights, adding that Ma had previously often used the term “to create peace across the Taiwan Strait” but that it has now turned into “to consolidate peace”. 

“If this is Ma’s objective, there are a lot of opportunities,” Tsai said. “He made no concessions, created no false hope and was very pragmatic.” 

Tsai believes that Beijing will adopt whatever pace Ma chooses in terms of cross-strait rapprochement. According to him, this is because the Chinese leadership understands Ma faces very strong domestic opposition and that his political power base is weakened. 

“China won’t make things difficult for Ma by pressuring him into political talks, a peace accord or military mutual confidence-building measures,” Tsai said. 

“As Beijing finds itself in a transitional period, with prospective new president Xi Jinping taking office in March 2013, both sides are consumed with their own domestic problems. Efforts for quick breakthroughs in cross-strait relations are an unaffordable luxury at the moment.” 

But Chen In-Chin, a professor at Taiwan’s National Central University’s Graduate Institute of Law and Government, said Ma’s speech wasn’t exactly all his own. 

“The wording has been agreed on by Beijing and Washington. I am positive both read the speech and may have dictated changes prior to Ma’s inauguration,” Chen said. 

He supported this notion by pointing out that as early as May 2, China’s official People’s Daily predicted the speech’s content with suspicious accuracy. Almost simultaneously with Ma’s inauguration, the Taiwan Research Institute at China’s Xiamen University published a strikingly elaborate analysis of the speech.

That Ma’s predecessor Chen Shui-bian sent drafts of his inauguration speeches beforehand to Beijing and Washington has since become an historical fact, added Chen. 

Chen said the media and Taiwan’s opposition had come to believe that Ma would acknowledge that Taiwan belonged to the Chinese state in his inaugural speech because of the “one country, two areas” slogan in March. 

“This aggressive push against the status quo not only profoundly irritated Ma’s domestic opponents but also Washington. The US “informally objected,” Chen said, most likely referring to a former US official who stated that “Taiwan now basically acknowledges it is part of China”, and that Taiwan-owned US-made weapons systems could “soon be turned around against US forces”. 

Apparently Washington saw Ma steering too directly towards unification and thus once again revived hallmark tactic of “dual deterrence”. Under this concept, Washington encourages one side until it become too self-confident while at the same time ignoring the other, until it feels just about to be abandoned. Then, the direction of US sympathy is abruptly shifted. 

As for the tactic’s outcome, the Taiwan Strait has been relatively stable for decades as Beijing couldn’t be sure whether or at what stage the US would intervene if it were to attempt pocketing the strategically important island, while the Taiwanese side wouldn’t risk declaring independence for the same reason. 

“On the eve of Ma’s inauguration, Washington said it will consider selling new F-16s to Taiwan. Exactly one day before, the House of Representatives approved an amendment ordering the sale of the aircraft. Simultaneously, the US Congress has very unmistakably called for Taiwan’s support. And also at the same time, a Pentagon report warned of a dangerous military imbalance in the Taiwan Strait,” Chen said. 

“This timing is no coincidence, and these by no means are routine statements. They made Ma throwing out any surprise phrases he might have had in his speech.” 

Jens Kastner is a Taipei-based journalist. 

(Copyright 2012 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.) 

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