Taiwanese Tightrope

Taiwan’s new Nationalist president, Ma Ying-jeou, has promised to improve ties with the mainland. Easier said than done.

On Tuesday, in the second-ever transfer of power from one democratically elected government to another in the history of the Republic of China (ROC), Ma Ying-jeou of the Nationalist Party (KMT) was sworn in as president on Taiwan. It comes after a historic series of legislative, presidential and referendum votes during which the KMT campaigned on a platform of improved relations with the mainland. In the wake of last month's dramatic meeting between Ma's vice president, Vincent Siew, and President Hu Jintao of the People's Republic of China (PRC), the inauguration raises hopes of a new chapter in cross-strait relations. Yet despite his unprecedented personal and political mandate-Ma won 58.45 percent of the vote, beating challenger Frank Hsieh by some 17 points; the KMT and its partners won a supermajority of 86 seats in the 113-seat Legislative Yuan-the new chief executive still faces considerable obstacles.

In his inaugural address, Ma invited both sides of the Taiwan Strait to "seize this strategic opportunity to achieve peace and co-prosperity" under the aegis of the "1992 consensus." Under that agreement, both the PRC and the ROC acknowledge that there is one China and accept the "Three No's" (no independence, no unification, no use of force). This approach, while considerably less confrontational than the pro-independence line taken by outgoing President Chen Shui-bian, leaves unresolved the sovereignty issue, which continues to bedevil ROC-PRC relations. Just one day before Ma's inauguration, under pressure from the mainland, the World Health Organization rejected Taiwan's bid to participate in deliberations as an observer-a secondary status the WHO currently accords to entities as diverse as the Palestine Liberation Organization and the Sovereign Military Order of Malta.

The issue of sovereignty not only affects Taiwan's participation in the international community, but also plays an important role in cross-strait relations. While neither of the two referenda held along with the presidential vote on Taiwan succeeded due to the stringent requirements for their passage, the number of votes they garnered clearly indicates that an overwhelming majority in Taiwan view their government as a sovereign entity. Until this issue is addressed, it will plague negotiations on the economic, commercial and cultural-exchange agenda that Ma hopes to promote. The KMT government faces a potential domestic backlash if it is seen as a supplicant before its Communist counterpart in Beijing. Taiwanese are well aware that they are not only the PRC's biggest source for foreign direct investment (accounting for somewhere between $150 billion and $250 billion), but also a major aid supplier to the mainland. Taiwan donated almost $1 billion for the victims of the Sichuan earthquake, a fact ironically acknowledged on Monday by PRC health minister Chen Zhu just before he beat back the island's attempt at WHO observer status. As President Ma noted at his inauguration, "Taiwan doesn't just want security and prosperity. It wants dignity. Only when Taiwan is no longer being isolated in the international arena can cross-strait relations move forward with confidence."

China's ongoing military buildup is a second obstacle to improving the climate along the Taiwan Strait. Beijing's positioning of an increasing number of ballistic missiles along the coast has heightened Taiwan's sense of vulnerability; a recently revealed underground nuclear-submarine base of on the southern tip of Hainan Island has further stoked anxiety about the regime's capabilities and intentions. Just days before the inauguration, in a subtle reproach to Ma's campaign pledge to open direct air links with the mainland, a statement posted on the ROC defense ministry's website affirmed that the military would work to implement the new policy, but warned that the flights would undermine security and expose Taiwan's air-force operations. Ma thus finds it necessary to balance his commitment to "cross-strait peace and regional stability" against a promise to "form a solid national defense force."

A final complication in cross-strait relations is presented by democratic consolidation on Taiwan which, as Ma noted on Tuesday, is "the sole ethnic Chinese society to complete a second democratic turnover of power." The new president emphasized the constitutional nature of politics on the island and expressed his hope that "mainland China will continue to move toward freedom, democracy, and prosperity" along a similar path, an evolution that "would pave the way for the long-term peaceful development of cross-strait relations." Implicit in this message is that the citizenry on Taiwan is highly unlikely to accept a closer rapport with the mainland if it means sacrificing their political and social freedoms.