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Wednesday, May 12, 2010

In the news

Frank Ching, a journalist based in Hong Kong, frequently writes on Taiwanese affairs, and the Japan Times ジャパンタイムズ is carrying his most recent column on the subject in today's issue. Here are a few excerpts from "Ma jockeys for domestic and Chinese favor":

"Taiwan's leader Ma Ying-jeou 馬英九 did something unusual late last month. With the next presidential election almost two years away, he held a televised debate with the leader of the opposition Democratic Progressive Party 民主進步黨, Tsai Ing-wen 蔡英文, thereby giving her the status and media exposure she badly wanted. It was a daring and high-risk move, but he did it because his support ratings were so low that he was having difficulty convincing the electorate that a key economic agreement with China that he has been pushing was in Taiwan's interests."

The agreement in question, ECFA 海峽兩岸經濟合作架構協議, has been one of the factors dragging down Ma's poll numbers, so it was no wonder he finally gave in and agreed to debate his DPP counterpart. Ching notes that Ma emerged from the debate with his approval rating up, but also points out that Tsai still has much higher support rates from the electorate.

"Ma has proven to be a somewhat less than inspirational leader except in the area of cross-strait relations, where he has performed brilliantly. His government over the past two years has concluded 12 agreements with China on such things as flights, food safety, tourism and mutual judicial assistance. Of course, those achievements were possible only because of China's cooperation. China appreciates Ma's rejection of the pro-independence policies of his predecessor, Chen Shui-bian陳水扁. But it has made clear that its ultimate goal remains political unification between the island and the mainland."

"Brilliance" in cross-strait relations depends on one's point of view. Independence supporters would no doubt describe Ma's pro-China policies as a threat to Taiwan's sovereignty, though most international observers seem pleased with the results so far. As Ching points out, however, none of Ma's "achievements" would have come about without China's approval. When the DPP was in power, agreements between China and Taiwan were also reached, but the negotiations that brought them about were conducted by two sides of roughly equal strength in bargaining positions. With Ma's eagerness to do business with Beijing, on the other hand, the Chinese side can (and does) negotiate from a stronger position, knowing that Ma's credibility as a leader rests on his ability to reach deals with the mainland.

"Ma has made no secret of his real reason for negotiating a trade agreement with China: his fear is that Taiwan, like North Korea, will be excluded from the network of trade accords that increasingly link other countries of the region. He hopes that, once an ECFA with China is completed, Taiwan will have China's blessing to sign free trade agreements with other countries.

It is far from clear that Beijing will go along with that, but the likelihood of Beijing continuing to make concessions to Taiwan is much greater if Ma's domestic political situation appears precarious. In fact, the weaker Ma appears, the more likely China is to shore him up since it does not want the pro-independence opposition party to regain power."

It's too bad Ching doesn't call out Ma on the latter's ridiculous comparisons with North Korea. The North Koreans are isolated by choice (the "juche" self-reliance philosophy), its nuclear activities and the fear of its leadership that a greater opening up to the outside world could eventually lead to the regime's downfall. None of these factors have anything in common with Taiwan, which actively trades with the rest of Asia (not to mention the world), and participates in regional groupings such as APEC.

Ching also accepts Ma's argument that Taiwan needs Beijing's "permission" in order to conclude Free Trade Agreements with other nations. However, the question is not whether China will "approve" of any FTA's Taiwan might conclude, but why Taiwan must have this approval in the first place. Not only is the rationale questionable (hasn't Taiwan reached agreements with a number of countries on various matters in the past despite the absence of diplomatic ties), but it denigrates the sovereignty of the Republic of China 中華民國. "Mr. Ma", of course, doesn't seem to mind.

As for Chinese concessions, the only way Beijing could act to shore up Ma's support, and help him to defeat Tsai in 2012, would be to withdraw the missiles it has pointed at Taiwan.

After a few remarks on the recent US-China spat over arms sales to Taiwan, Ching concludes by writing:

"A glimpse into China's position was provided the week before last at an East-West Center conference in Hong Kong. Professor Chu Shulong of Tsinghua University told the audience that Taiwan, in fact, has a right to purchase arms from abroad. It is just that no country has the right to sell arms to Taiwan. A more enlightened China would certainly recognize the absurdity of such a position."

A more "enlightened" China would stop trying to recreate, let alone hold onto, the territorial empire that was once that of the Manchus, but it's highly unlikely the leadership in Beijing will be spending time under Bodhi trees.

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