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Changing of the Guard: Where Taiwan Goes After President Ma

December 8, 2015 Topic: Politics Region: Asia Tags: TaiwanChinaMa Ying-jeouElectionsSecurity

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.

Third, although still circumscribed and subject to various obstacles emanating from Beijing, Taiwan’s participation in international society has increased during Ma’s tenure. The extent of Taiwan’s participation remains incommensurate with an economy of Taiwan’s size, or a liberal democracy that is a global trading power. However, its group of diplomatic allies has remained stable and Ma can point to a number of successes such as joining international organizations and increasing the number of countries and territories that grant ROC citizens visa-free entry, landing-visa privileges and other entry facilitation programs. The number of intergovernmental organizations (IGOs) or their subsidiary bodies in which Taiwan enjoys full membership has risen to thirty-seven during Ma’s presidency. Notably, in 2009, Taiwan became a signatory to the World Trade Organization Agreement on Government Procurement and the World Health Organization’s health alert system. President Ma’s administration is keen to emphasize these successes as indicators that it has acted with great resolve to uphold Taiwan’s “dignity” and “respect.”

Within Taiwan there is longstanding controversy over what constitutes “dignity” and the means to achieve it, but comparing the scope of Taiwan’s international participation and the way that Taiwan is perceived by Western governments and media, there has been a major change in Taiwan’s fortunes from the Chen Shui-bian and Lee Teng-hui administrations.

Fourth, the China policy pursued by Ma has established a proven platform for engaging China, including the institutionalization of Track II, party to party, city-to-city and other sub-national fora, in addition to practical arrangements for handling increasingly diverse, intense and complex socio-economic interactions between the two sides. Ma’s embrace of the “1992 Consensus” and consistent discursive positioning of Taiwan within a one China framework, have provided the demonstration of “sincerity” demanded by Beijing as a necessary condition for cooperation. The re-invigoration of the relationship between the Taiwan Affairs Office and the Mainland Affairs Council has allowed the two sides to cooperate on the management of intensifying people-to-people and commercial relations, including the semi-permanent population of more than 1 million Taiwanese business people in China. Newly functioning institutional arrangements have provided a framework, and much needed momentum, for both dialogue and practical measures. Although many problems remain, for example in the implementation of practical economic agreements, the lack of consular services, and unilateral decisions such as Beijing’s plan to require Taiwanese visitors to use IC cards, the management of Taiwan-China interactions is significantly more effective now than under Ma’s predecessors.             

Against these gains, there are a number of areas where the KMT’s China policies under Ma can be characterized as having failed to advance Taiwan’s interests. First, while the temperature of cross-strait relations has in many ways never been better, the underlying militarization of the strait, manifest most obviously in 1,800 Chinese missiles stationed in Fujian, remains unchanged. Despite Ma’s China-friendly orientation, China’s military posture represents an undiminished threat to Taiwan’s national security. President Xi’s reported remark during his meeting with Ma in Singapore that missiles are not directed at Taiwan, was a high-profile dismissal of genuine concerns. For all the gains made under Ma’s détente policies, passage of the PRC’s Anti-Secession Law (albeit three years before Ma assumed the presidency), China’s growing military capacity and modernization, the changing military balance in the Taiwan Strait and the undiminished pressures of “hawks” within the broader CCP leadership (including the PLA), mean that Taiwan’s underlying security environment has not significantly changed under Ma.