Reuters reported Thursday that Ma Ying-jeou, Taiwan’s president, believed it was necessary to address the political impasse between Taiwan and China in order to renovate the island’s economy. Bloomberg also picked up the story, paraphrasing Ma as saying that “Taiwan needs a breakthrough in its decades-old standoff with China to take its economy to the next level.” In my opinion, both these pieces are fundamentally misreading not only Ma’s actual speech, but also the intentions and limitations of his administration.
In the case of Ma’s New Year’s speech, Western media outlets seem to have confused Ma’s statement on “ending the cross-strait standoff” for a future goal rather than (as it actually was) a reference to his past accomplishments. The official English translation of the speech on the Taiwan Presidential Office website makes this clear. Here is an excerpt of the passage in question:
From the start of my presidency, I was keenly aware that if we wanted to take Taiwan’s economy to the next level, we would have to break through the stalemate in cross-strait relations … Therefore, five and a half years ago this administration made the 1992 Consensus—whereby each side acknowledges the existence of “one China” but maintains its own interpretation of what that means—the foundation on which to rebuild the cross-strait relationship … As a result, the Taiwan Strait is no longer a tense flashpoint, but rather, has become an avenue of peace, and a gateway through which other countries can enter the mainland Chinese market.
It seems pretty clear from this translation that Ma was not talking about breaking through any further barriers, but rather reflecting on what his administration had already done to boost Taiwan’s economy.
Even more pointedly, Ma Ying-jeou never uses a word that both Reuters and Bloomberg put into his mouth: political. From the beginning of his administration, Ma has been extremely careful to dismantle economic and trade barriers between Taiwan and the mainland while not touching any of the political issues. His statement here reflects that careful balance. The “stalemate in cross-strait relations” and “the cross-strait standoff” Ma references are both economic rather than political.
Ma’s entire presidential term has been built on walking this tightrope. Taiwan’s economy did in fact need the boost that was provided by removing trade barriers between it and mainland China. However, this was a politically dicey issue, as public opinion in Taiwan is extremely sensitive to cross-strait issues. Even though Ma has very carefully sectioned off the larger political questions, his economic reforms have led to constant criticism from the opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP). Honigmann Hong, head of the DPP’s Department of China Affairs, told the Taipei Times that “Ma is surrendering Taiwan to be bound up inside the ‘one China’ noose” — in other words, setting Taiwan up to be reabsorbed by mainland China.
Ma is having enough trouble pushing through his agenda for further economic cooperation with China. Richard Bush, Director of the Brooking Institution’s Center for East Asia Policy Studies, make this point in his book Uncharted Strait: The Future of China-Taiwan Relations. Bush argues that cross-strait relations are actually at risk of backsliding, as it might be difficult for Taiwan and China to actually implement the agreements they have already signed — much less negotiate new ones. Ma Ying-jeou, for example, faces major hurdles in pushing the already-negotiated Cross-Strait Trade in Services Agreement through Taiwan’s legislature. The task is made even more difficult by Ma’s abysmal approval rating, which sank as low as 9 percent in September and hasn’t improved much since. Against this background, it’s almost inconceivable that Ma would turn around and institute major political talks with China.
Ma has gone on record saying that Taiwan is not ready to engage in political talks with the mainland. In an interview with the Washington Post, Ma said that he was not willing to discuss either a cross-strait peace agreement or military confidence-building measures because of a lack of consensus on the island. Such measures, Ma said, should first be put “to a referendum to confirm we had strong public support.” In other words, Ma is not willing to consider political talks until the Taiwan people are — and that is not likely to happen anytime soon.
Ma told the Washington Post that his administration’s general principle “is to address pressing issues before less pressing ones, easy ones before difficult ones, and economic ones before political ones.” Ma remains open to talking about political issues “where the time is ripe and the issue is pressing.” The major political issues don’t fit either of those requirements, at least from Taiwan’s perspective. Taiwan’s people seem quite content to go along with the status quo, making use of the ambiguity inherent in the 1992 Consensus rather than forging new agreements that might change the political relationship between Taiwan and the mainland.
It’s even less likely that Ma would embrace political talks now that PRC President Xi Jinping has publicly stated his preference for beginning such a dialogue. “Looking further ahead, the issue of political disagreements that exist between the two sides must reach a final resolution, step by step, and these issues cannot be passed on from generation to generation,” Xi said at the APEC summit in October. Ma Ying-jeou was harshly criticized for Xi’s remarks. Opposition forces argued that Ma had set Taiwan up to be bullied into political talks by China. If Ma caught flack for something Xi Jinping said, imagine what would happen if Ma himself put forward such a proposal. Should Ma actually engage in political talks, it would undoubtedly be read as capitulation to Chinese pressure — political suicide both for Ma and for his party, the Kuomintang (also known as the Chinese Nationalist Party).
This doesn’t mean that Ma will completely ignore political issues, but he is going to continue to move very (very) slowly. Ma told the Washington Post that Taiwan is continuing to negotiate with China “on the establishment of representative offices in each other’s territory.” Even this step, Ma said, was “politically very sensitive.” “Ending Taiwan’s political standoff with mainland China,” a step Reuters argued Ma was advocating for, seems laughably far off given this background.
Cross-strait political issues are a minefield for Taiwan’s leaders — both because of potential backlash in domestic opinion and because of the real fear that Taiwan could take steps that give China too much leverage in the reunification debate. It’s extremely unlikely that Ma, a lame duck president with little public support, would attempt to tackle the thorny cross-strait political situation, especially when he has gone on record as saying that the time is not ripe. Instead, expect Ma to concentrate on getting his already negotiated agreements pushed through Taiwan’s government, and on solidifying the KMT’s credentials as a defender of Taiwan’s interests ahead of the 2016 elections.