Following his “no unification, no independence, no use of force” campaign pledge, President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) told The Associated Press recently that unification with China was not likely “within our lifetimes,” an extraordinary comment that discredits the narrative of detente that haunts credulous media coverage of cross-strait affairs.
Hopes for the acceleration of cross-strait cooperation with a view to a peace deal are likely to be dashed if China is unwilling to fall into step with Ma’s realistic assessment. But a human lifetime is an eternity in geopolitics: It is ludicrous to think that Beijing would indefinitely tolerate a Taiwanese agenda rooted in this assumption. A crossroads is approaching, and the KMT must decide whether it wishes to promote Taiwanese interests or act as a proxy for a foreign government that quietly despises it.
China is thus going to be no less a headache for Ma than for his predecessor, Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁). In the short term, however, the pressure on him to deliver economic results is going to be more pronounced; the much-vaunted but largely untested economic abilities of Vice President Vincent Siew (蕭萬長) and the new Cabinet will determine the level of popular support for the government by year’s end.
The most conspicuous component of this economic plan has been the opening up of Taiwan to Chinese tourists and capital. The public will soon know — if it does not already — that tourism and direct flights are showy but superficial contributors to the national coffers; their primary functions are symbolic and diplomatic. As for Chinese investment, the jury is still out, but we can be sure that the political fallout of any investments gone awry will be milked for all they are worth by the Democratic Progressive Party and affected sectors.
Ma’s undertaking to improve relations with the US is welcome and necessary, though it should be stressed that a lot of the practical damage to that relationship was the doing of Ma’s colleagues in the KMT. On substantial matters such as weapons sales, Ma has an opportunity to use his party influence to strike deals with a KMT-dominated legislature.
However, KMT figureheads such as Chairman Wu Poh-hsiung (吳伯雄) and Legislative Speaker Wang Jin-pyng (王金平) are not going to lie down to do the Presidential Office’s bidding, even on matters of obvious benefit to the nation. Ma must also overcome the profound hostility toward the US that remains among hardline KMT legislators, as well as battle the notorious kickback culture of the Legislative Yuan.
Ma the man remains an anomaly. For years we have complimented him on his impeccable demeanor and progressive social agenda. But there are still grounds to doubt his ability to deliver on his promises, as well as his strength to keep the pan-blue camp’s most repugnant elements at bay.
The good news for Ma is that there is much he can do to advance Taiwan’s economic interests while defending and advancing its territorial and administrative integrity. The sober truth is that many, if not most, of the dramatic political changes that empowered ordinary Taiwanese took place under the previous KMT government. Ma should look to this positive component of the KMT’s legacy and seek to extend it.
Ma has not been seriously tested as a high official, and as a loyal KMT man, he has rarely had to live up to the highest of public expectations. But no one should be under any illusions: These tests are coming. It will only be a short time before Ma begins to feel the pressure from Beijing, KMT hardliners and ordinary Taiwanese to deliver results. These are incompatible agendas, and Ma’s customary kneejerk responses when under heavy political pressure would exacerbate problems rather than deflect them.