Changing of the Guard: Where Taiwan Goes After President Ma

Ma has overseen a period of unprecedented calm and productive relations with Taiwan’s biggest existential threat, China.

Six weeks out from Election Day in Taiwan, the DPP presidential candidate Tsai Ing-wen has an unassailable lead in the polls, and the only uncertainty is whether her party, the DPP, will win a legislative majority, and if so, by how large a margin. The ruling KMT is reeling; damaged by an unpopular outgoing president, rifts in the party, an indecisive last minute candidate and a series of policy flops and scandals. Whatever the intention behind last month’s hastily arranged meeting in Singapore between Chinese President Xi Jinping and Taiwan’s Ma Ying-jeou, it has failed to invigorate the KMT or change its fortunes in the polls. For readers with a passing interest in Taiwan, this may come as a surprise. After all, Ma has overseen a period of unprecedented calm and productive relations with Taiwan’s biggest existential threat, China.

Upon entering office in 2008, Ma had four overarching aims. First, to stabilize cross-strait relations that effectively came to a halt at the (semi-)official level during his predecessor Chen Shui-bian’s tenure. Second, to revive Taiwan’s economic fortunes through closer integration with the Chinese economy. Third, to balance the imperative of economic incentives with the maintenance of “national dignity.” Fourth, to roll back the “de-Sinicization” elements of Chen Shui-bian’s “Taiwanization” program by emphasizing Taiwan’s Chinese cultural heritage and situating Taiwan within the framework of the greater Chinese nation.

The underlying device used to pursue these aims was the “1992 Consensus”, a rhetorical position regarding Taiwan’s status vis-à-vis China characterized by “one China, separate interpretations”. The “1992 Consensus” is controversial in Taiwan, but its ambiguities have created space for the two sides to develop a workable platform and a new level of momentum. During Ma’s tenure, this platform has yielded a number of practical agreements across several socio-economic sectors, including a limited free trade agreement, the Cross-Straits Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement (ECFA).

When he stands down at the end of his second term in 2016, Ma Ying-jeou will leave cross-Strait relations in significantly better shape than when he began his presidency in 2008. In that sense, his China policy can be considered a success. However, Taiwan’s engagement with China is complicated and Ma’s China policy cannot be measured by the tone of cross-strait relations alone, or by the tenor of particular leaders’ personal interactions. Taiwan’s China policy has implications for its economy, society, foreign relations and many other policy sectors, and it remains one of the most contested arenas for domestic political competition, often, but not exclusively, refracted through the prism of national identity.

The KMT’s China policy under Ma has made gains in a number of ways. First, the tenor of cross-strait relations has reached an all-time high, manifest in the absence of the periodic tensions and diplomatic gridlock that characterized the tenures of Chen Shui-bian and Lee Teng-hui. The reinvigoration of semi-official frameworks and the institutionalization of party-to-party talks culminated in the first ever meeting of sitting PRC and ROC presidents in Singapore toward the end of Ma’s second term. Observing Taiwan from the outside, Ma’s China policy has decreased the likelihood of conflict at a time when tensions have been rising in the area due to emergent territorial disputes in the South and East China Seas. The stability of cross-strait relations during this period of increasing friction between China and Japan, Vietnam, the Philippines and other territorial claimants has been a development warmly welcomed by global leaders, particularly in Washington. Taiwan’s foreign policy behavior, as a claimant of disputed territories itself, has been conciliatory and responsible, with gains made not just in cross-strait relations but in resolving points of contention with Tokyo and Manila. And while there are heated debates in Taiwan about the level of the “concessions” needed to achieve it, the Ma administration has demonstrated that it is possible for Taiwan to cooperate with China, reversing the trajectory of his predecessors. 

Second, the incremental opening up of the Taiwanese economy to the mainland and the expansion and deepening of economic integration has led to positive results for parts of the Taiwanese economy, particularly large corporations and individuals with the capital and skills to exploit new opportunities. The promised results of opening Taiwan’s economy up to China were undoubtedly hampered by the global financial crisis and subsequent recession that negatively affected Taiwan’s export markets, especially in the United States and Eurozone. Although most economic indicators rebounded impressively in 2010, the effects of this recovery were less felt in the population at large than in specific sectors of the economy. Taiwan’s exports grew robustly during President Ma’s first term despite the global financial crisis. Total annual exports grew 20 percent from 2008 to 2011, with one third of that rise coming from exports to mainland China.