The Clock Has Run out on Ma Ying-jeou’s Cross-Strait Approach

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The Clock Has Run out on Ma Ying-jeou’s Cross-Strait Approach

In 2023, Ma’s dream of dialogue and compromise looks unrealistically naive.  

The Clock Has Run out on Ma Ying-jeou’s Cross-Strait Approach

Former Taiwan President Ma Ying-jeou, center, waves as he arrivers with his delegation at the Pudong airport in Shanghai, China, Mar. 27, 2023.

Credit: Ma Ying-jeou Foundation

Since he left office in 2016, former Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou has mostly stayed away from Taiwan’s day-to-day political shouting matches. This week, he briefly reappeared in the public spotlight by making a trip to China.

Ma and his party, the opposition Kuomintang (KMT), insist that his trip is personal. Perhaps this is their explanation of why the trip is almost a non-event, even in China and Taiwan.

The trip should have been hailed as a historic moment. It is the first time that any current or former elected head of state of the Republic of China in Taiwan has ever stepped foot on the soil of the People’s Republic of China. As one of only three former presidents who were democratically elected in Taiwan, Ma’s actions should carry political weight, especially now that the China-Taiwan relationship is more fraught than ever.

But aside from enthusiasts of the cross-straits melodrama, the trip has mostly been ignored by the rest of the world. It is not only because Ma has been an inactive political figure without much influence. The more fundamental reason is that history has moved in the opposite direction from Ma’s dream of dialogue and compromise. It is an outdated message that, in 2023, sounds nothing more than unrealistically naïve.

Ma’s trip is reminiscent of his summit with Chinese leader Xi Jinping in November 2015. It was also a historic first: the first time that the head of state of Taiwan met face to face with the head of state of the People’s Republic of China.

I wrote a piece for Foreign Policy on the eve of the historical meeting. In it, I described Ma’s political vision:

Since [his election in 2008], Ma has attempted to fashion himself as a statesman working on one of the most serious geopolitical conundrums in the world today. This can be seen from what he touts as his achievements in office: concluding a long list of agreements with Beijing, most notably the Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement, signed in 2010; opening up Taiwan for Chinese tourists and exchange students from China; and direct flights between the two sides over the Taiwan Strait. Ma sees only one piece missing from his presidential legacy: a meeting with the leader of the People’s Republic.

Ma’s personal dream was to be remembered by history as the peacemaker who undid the Gordian Knot of China-Taiwan relations not through war, but through good-faith negotiations and mutual trust.

Even in 2015, I argued that the time for Ma’s path has passed. China’s overwhelming leverage over Taiwan has emboldened Beijing to insist on Taipei accepting its bottom line – that Taiwan is a part of China – as a prerequisite to any kind of dialogue. To the Taiwanese people, a dialogue where the conclusion is predetermined before anyone starts talking doesn’t seem much like a “dialogue” at all.

The people of Taiwan do not accept the premise that Taiwan is part of China unconditionally. They do not wish for any sort of rule by Beijing in the short term, and a growing segment of Taiwanese society has come to view China as a bully that uses intimidation and infiltration against Taiwan.

Therefore, I predicted that the Ma-Xi summit would actually erode the chances of any meaningful dialogue between Taiwan and China. Ma’s approval rating right before the summit was at 16.3 percent, which did not help the legitimacy of the summit for Taiwanese voters. Many viewed it as sheer electoral posturing, as the meeting came just two months ahead of a presidential election in which Ma’s KMT was projected to lose – and indeed did. More importantly, the meeting served to show just how much China’s overwhelming power imbalance would force Taiwan to appease China in the name of compromise.

Looking through the hindsight of historical reflection, my predictions were correct. The Ma-Xi summit was meant to begin a new era of mutual goodwill. Instead, the summit only demonstrated to the Taiwanese people that Ma’s message was already out of step with public opinion. Two months later, the KMT lost the presidency and legislative majority in landslide losses, from which the KMT has not recovered. The summit quickly faded from Taiwan’s collective short-term memory, and it became, basically, a non-event.

As Ma visits China this week, his actions again remind us of the direction history has taken. Compared with eight years ago, China has become more authoritarian instead of more liberal. Xi abolished his own term limit, consolidated power, and shut out any dissenting voice in his government. In Hong Kong, China suppressed not only protests but any semblance of political opposition, and has begun to fundamentally dismantle Hong Kong’s independent rule of law. China’s treatment of Uyghurs and Tibetans is more brutal than ever. Its policies toward COVID-19 were capricious at best, starting with lockdowns that were taken to bizarre extremes and ending in a reopening that was unimaginably irresponsible.

None of these developments are relevant to Taiwan; it would be hard to imagine any amount of mutual trust between the two sides that would have altered the course of history. China’s trajectory has taken it far away from Taiwanese hearts and minds. Not to mention China is further antagonizing Taiwan by ramping up its daily show of military force and unilaterally raising the threat of actual armed invasion.

During a time like this, a former president of Taiwan visiting China uninvited is essentially an unconditional olive branch to Beijing that says: “Taiwan can overlook everything, as long as you let us talk to you.” Desperation is not a good look, particularly when Ma – who holds no formal office and cannot meaningfully speak for the Taiwanese people – is meeting with top Chinese Communist Party officials.

In 2015, former KMT presidential adviser Rex How said of the Ma-Xi summit: “I agree that if the meeting takes place under equal and dignified circumstances without giving up our sovereignty, then it is something good; otherwise it will be a disaster.” Eight years later, as much as Ma may want his trip to signal he is still hoping for some kind of ice-breaking engagement, China has grown even less interested in giving Taiwan any kind of equal and dignified treatment.

Ma’s trip, like his summit, will sadly not change much. It will be a quickly forgotten, irrelevant episode in the drama that is today’s great power geopolitics.