Giant on the move
Cooling period for Taiwan, China
Chronically isolated Taiwan found a powerful new friend over the past year – its once bitter adversary China. But as Taiwan President Ma Ying-jeou, a leading figure behind that friendship, reaches his first anniversary in office on May 20, the two sides have shown they’re ready to back away from each other again.
Ma’s first year saw what few could have imagined even two years ago, never mind 60, when Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalists fled to Taiwan from China after losing the Chinese civil war to Mao Zedong’s Communists. China still claims sovereignty over democratic, self-ruled Taiwan and has threatened to take it by force if necessary. It has said the two sides must ultimately be united.
Dropping the hardball that characterised previous Taiwan presidents, Ma’s government has met counterparts from Beijing to work out the first direct flights, a new tourism accord and investment in each other’s markets, all of particular benefit to recession-hit Taiwan.
Talks leading to those deals lifted mutual confidence to where China has thundered about fighting problems overseas under Beijing’s ethnic unity banner. China has asked Taiwan, which is 98 percent ethnic Chinese, to help combat the world financial crisis, implying that both were victims of the U.S. economy. More recently it suggested uniting to fight influenza A, which also started overseas.
But due to dips in his opinion polls, Ma may take on China again to court Taiwan voters who distrust their Communist neighbour regardless of its contributions to the island economy. Taiwan Outlook magazine found that 28.6 percent of the public was dissatisfied with Ma in March, up 4.6 percent. The satisfaction rate declined 8.1 percent, the magazine said.
Ahead of a high-profile, highly ceremonial anniversary of his first year in office, the soft-spoken but ever-telegenic Ma just signed two United Nations covenants on human rights, an obvious weakness in China. His foreign ministry issued an unusually harsh news release condemning Beijing’s claim to Taiwan, which is just 160 km away. The island government has also come out hard lately in defending its claim to the South China Sea’s disputed Spratly Islands as China, Vietnam and others ramp up their own.
Economic benefits aside, no one on the island is rushing to unify with China. An overnight street protest from late Sunday, drawing tens if not hundreds of thousands of people, shows Ma faces continued strong dissent. “I don’t understand politics, but China really likes us, we can cooperate, and if not, we’ve got to strike off on our own,” said a typically cautious Hsiao Yu-chi, 50, a shopkeeper in the southern Taiwan city Kaohsiung. “We like happiness and freedom. It’s that simple.”
China, for its part, also sees a cooling period. “There exist some inherent contradictions and differences between both sides of the Strait, as well as sensitive political and military problems,” Yang Yi, a spokesman for China’s Taiwan Affairs Office, said in early May. “If these problems are not solved, or not solved properly, they may become a bottleneck in the development of cross-Strait ties, or an obstruction. So we cannot avoid these issues.”
Photo caption: Supporters of the opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) take part in a mass protest against Taiwan President Ma Ying-jeou in Taipei on May 17, 2009. REUTERS/Nicky Loh