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China Making Taiwan Nervous?

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China Power

China Making Taiwan Nervous?

China’s more assertive diplomacy seems to have made Taiwanese more wary over its intentions.

If Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou had hoped for a boost in his poll ratings with a landmark economic deal meant to boost the island’s economy, then he’ll likely have been disappointed with a recent opinion survey posted on his party’s website.

In June, Ma pushed through the Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement (ECFA) with China, which he claimed was essential for Taiwan’s future growth prospects and would help meet his pledge to lead the island into a ‘golden decade.’

But according to a Global Views magazine opinion poll last month, trust in the ruling party has continued to fall—from 47.7 last September in the magazine’s Ruling Side Trust Index, to 43.6 (and down a point since the ECFA was signed). Over the same period, political optimism has fallen even faster, from 56.3 to 45.4.

What’s really interesting about this poll, though, is the swing in the figure measuring how relaxed Taiwanese feel about cross-Strait relations. Just over a year ago, optimism over cross-Strait relations stood at 64.4. But this figure had dipped to 56.4 by last month. The biggest fall came between July and September of this year, when there was an almost five point fall.

The figures appear to reflect in part suspicion of the mainland’s government, with exactly a third having a positive impression, compared with more than half who have a bad impression. When asked specifically what word they would use to describe the Chinese government, the most popular response was ‘autocratic’, offered by 20 percent of respondents, followed by ‘tyrannical’ at 17 percent; only 4 percent described it as ‘friendly’.

This will also be something of a blow to Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao, who will no doubt hope that the mainland’s recent more moderate rhetoric over the hundreds of missiles pointed at Taiwan will have reassured a bit about the mainland’s intentions.

Speaking in New York last month, Wen suggested that the missiles could be removed at some point. Channel News Asia quoted him as saying: ‘I believe the issue you mention will eventually be realised.’

The comment was quickly welcomed, unsurprisingly, by Ma’s office, with one senior official quoted as saying: ‘It is a sign of goodwill from Beijing, evidence of the peaceful and steady development of bilateral ties and something we are glad to see.’

The China Post also noted:

‘Premier Wu Den-yih expressed a similar opinion at the Legislative Yuan earlier in the day before giving a report on his administration's agenda.

‘“We believe the remark is a gesture of goodwill and we hope that it (the removal) can be done as soon as possible,’ Wu said.

‘“The withdrawal of the missiles will not neutralize all the threat facing Taiwan, but it is a most specific sign of goodwill.”’

All this said, though, the KMT probably shouldn’t get too excited about such a statement—after all, the word ‘eventually’ is hardly particularly committal. And earlier this week, a senior Taiwanese official reportedly told a US defence forum that although commercial ties were improving, the military threat from China is growing stronger.

AP reported:

‘Deputy Defense Minister Andrew Yang told a U.S.-Taiwan Business Council meeting in Maryland on Monday that despite considerable progress on commercial ties, the mainland is continuing to deploy more and more sophisticated weapons against the island, according to reports Tuesday from opposition and pro-government newspapers and the government-owned Central News Agency.

‘Taiwan's Defense Ministry said it couldn't confirm Yang's remarks.

‘The media outlets quoted Yang as saying that China has never renounced its threats to attack Taiwan, and that its anti-Taiwanese military posture is at odds with the recent signing of a landmark trade deal between the sides.’

The reasons for the concern, and the plunge in cross-Strait confidence between July and September, aren’t all that hard to fathom. Although China made its claim to vast parts of the South China Sea earlier this year, the issue really gained international attention—and focused minds on China’s expansive claim—from July.

The summer then saw a flurry of reports and commentary (including at The Diplomat) on China’s growing territorial assertiveness, something that’s hardly likely to have endeared it to Taiwanese, nor reassured them of Beijing’s benign intentions.