Taiwan's Ma said: The U.S. side looks a little gullible
January 5, 2007 8:43am CST
Taiwanese Hopeful Would Alter Course on China By Edward Cody Washington Post Foreign Service Sunday, March 19, 2006; Page A19 TAIPEI, Taiwan -- Ma Ying-jeou has always loved to run marathons, and he has approached politics the same way. From the day he was named Taiwan's youngest-ever cabinet member 18 years ago, he has been running for leadership. Now, 55 and head of the Nationalist Party, he has started a sprint toward the presidency that, in the view of many Taiwanese, could dramatically alter the island's tense standoff with China. In an interview last week, Ma pledged that if he won the next presidential election, in 2008, as widely expected, he would shift Taiwan sharply away from the confrontational, pro-independence policies followed by President Chen Shui-bian. A Nationalist government under his leadership, he declared, would seek neither unification with nor independence from China, focusing instead on practical improvements in cross-strait relations while maintaining the status quo of Taiwanese self-rule. "When I talk about these things, I say, 'Let's forget about unification and independence,' " he said. "Let's maintain the status quo and concentrate on the economy." His statements were framed to sound like music in Washington, where the Bush administration has repeatedly expressed irritation with Chen's relentless efforts to move Taiwan's 23 million people along the road toward independence since his rise to power in 2000. Although the United States has no formal diplomatic relations with Taiwan, it has promised to help in the island's defense, raising the specter of U.S. involvement should the tensions over independence explode into military confrontation with China. Ma's lower-the-temperature approach is also calculated to appeal to Beijing, where Chinese leaders constantly express dismay at Chen's independence moves. China, which regards Taiwan as a province that must return to Beijing's rule, has warned it will do whatever it takes to prevent the island from attaining formal independence, including using force. Seeking to portray Chen as the main source of that danger, the Chinese government has gone out of its way to take a friendly stance toward the Nationalist Party, particularly since a history-making visit to China last April by Ma's predecessor as party leader, Lien Chan. Here in Taiwan, a strong majority has consistently told poll-takers that maintenance of the status quo is the wisest course, expressing unwillingness to embrace reunification but uneasiness about the possibility that a passionate quest for independence could lead to war. A dip in the island's economic growth has added another argument, raising fears that Chen's independence drive is diverting official attention from economic concerns. In casual conversations last week, residents of the capital, Taipei, repeatedly emphasized worries that Chen's priorities were out of balance. There are signs that these sentiments have caused a shift in the electorate, boding well for Ma's chances in 2008. The Nationalist Party and its allies retained control of the legislature in December 2004 elections, despite wide expectations to the contrary. Elections for city and county councils last December again showed a drop in support for Chen's Democratic Progressive Party. A poll taken the same month showed the president's approval rating down to 21 percent. Ma, the mayor of Taipei, has the movie-star looks and sleaze-free appeal to capitalize on the new political winds, Taiwanese analysts said, provided nothing blows him off course during the next two years. Women on both sides of the Taiwan Strait especially appreciate him. Hearing that a friend was about to interview Ma, Chen Hui-ting, a 24-year-old college student, said: "Wow, that's so cool to be meeting Ma. Say hi to him for me." But he has left nothing to chance. To broaden his appeal among Taiwan's native population -- who provide Chen his base -- Ma has been studying Taiwanese dialect and renewing ties to the man he defeated to become Nationalist chairman, Wang Jin-pyng, the parliamentary speaker and a native Taiwanese. The son of a Nationalist general who came from the mainland with the defeated Chiang Kai-shek in 1949, Ma has been a party activist since his student days. In addition to his pedigree, an elite education and smooth manners propelled him upward. A fluent English speaker, he interpreted for then-President Chiang Ching-kuo when Chiang announced in a 1986 interview with The Washington Post that Taiwan would lift martial law. By age 38, he was appointed to his first cabinet-level post. Ma defeated Chen, who was then Taipei mayor, to win his current job in 1998, the first of two terms. Ma, educated at New York University and Harvard Law School, will get a chance to convey his views directly to Americans in a visit beginning Monday in New York and including stops in Boston and Washington as well as on the West Coast. The main purpose, he said, is to promote U.S. investment in Taiwan's high-tech industries. But his schedule also includes talks with U.S. officials designed to burnish the resume of a possible future president. Despite his promise to smooth relations with China, Ma is likely to face hostile questions in Washington about why his party's legislative majority has blocked an $18.2 billion arms sale proposed by the Bush administration five years ago and pushed without success by Chen. Ma, whose Nationalists have sought a smaller package, said Chen's government had taken "a dangerously wrong course" by focusing on confrontation with China. Taiwan's president, he said, seems eager to please the "nationalist fundamentalists" at the core of his Democratic Progressive Party and to steer attention away from corruption charges leveled in recent months against some of his top aides. But more broadly, Ma added, Chen appears determined, in his two years remaining in office, to advance as far as possible toward his passionately held goal of Taiwanese independence. "What the president is doing now is an incremental policy leading toward de jure independence," he said. Chen's announcement on Feb. 27 that Taiwan's National Unification Council had "ceased to function" was the latest step and not the last, Ma warned. The next move will be revising the Taiwanese constitution in ways that move the island toward formal independence, according to Su Chi, a Nationalist member of the Legislative Yuan, or parliament. Ma said the Bush administration was unwise to accept Chen's decision on the unification council with only a mild reaction. U.S. and Taiwanese officials had negotiated the language carefully, leading Chen to abandon his stated intention to "abolish" the council in favor of the "ceased to function" formulation. Largely on that basis, the administration accepted Chen's contention that the status quo was not changed by his decision. But Ma, citing his training as a lawyer, said the Chinese word Chen used in fact means "terminate," which does imply a change in the status quo. In addition, he said, no matter what the language, Chen's decision to stand up and announce the end of an official symbol of willingness to get along with China amounted to provocation. "The U.S. side looks a little gullible," he said.