“Be careful what you wish for.” This old Chinese proverb came repeatedly to mind when listening to President Ma Ying-jeou’s (馬英九) forward-looking inauguration address, which offered so many olive branches to Beijing that even some of his ardent supporters feared he had “gone too far,” and protesters almost immediately took to the streets in Taipei, warning against “selling out” to China.
The big question now is can Beijing, after hearing “no” for the past eight years, take “yes” for an answer. Ma called on Beijing to join him in “launching a new era of cross-strait relations,” based on his “three noes” policy: no unification, no independence, and no use of force.
He talked about “one China, respective interpretations” and the “1992 consensus” and made several references to “our mutual Chinese heritage.” He also committed to maintaining the “status quo” across the Strait, noting at one point that, “in a young democracy, respecting the Constitution is more important than amending it,” highlighting the fact that his predecessor’s attempts to amend the Constitution by way of referendum were a main source of tension between Taipei and Beijing.
In a truly unprecedented gesture, Ma also made positive references to Chinese President Hu Jintao’s (胡錦濤) remarks on cross-strait relations — “building mutual trust, shelving controversies, finding commonalities despite differences and creating together a win-win solution.”
Ma laid out the normalization of economic and cultural relations with China as immediate goals, but warned that “Taiwan doesn’t just want security and prosperity; it wants dignity.”
Herein lies the rub.
It should be relatively easy for Beijing to respond positively to Ma’s calls for direct weekend charter flights and visits to Taiwan by Chinese tourists and other economic and cultural exchanges. Some security gesture, such as a visible drawback of missiles opposite Taiwan, is also doable without dramatically changing the security calculus. But, is Beijing prepared to make significant gestures aimed at truly improving Taiwan’s sense of security and easing its international isolation?
A failure by Beijing to respond positively to Ma’s olive branches will seriously undercut the new Taiwanese leader as he tries to build consensus at home in support of his forward-looking cross-Strait policies. His address is already being labelled by the opposition as “naive” and “wishful thinking.” Will Beijing prove this to be the case?
For its part, the Chinese leadership is preoccupied with other things right now — earthquake relief, Olympics preparations, unrest in Tibet and elsewhere — while breathing a sigh of relief that its main nemesis, former president Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁) is finally out of the picture. Beijing appeared almost paranoid about Chen springing an 11th hour surprise on them; a fear exacerbated by its lack of understanding about how democratic transitions work. This one worked flawlessly, as Chen had promised.
Beijing immediately opted to pass on its first chance to make a positive political gesture by once again blocking Taiwan’s bid for observer status in the WHO. Chen’s decision to apply as “Taiwan” rather than “Chinese Taipei” regrettably made it easier for Beijing to once again block this request, but it could have asked the WHO to postpone consideration of Taiwan’s bid for a few days to allow for a reformulation of the application, rather than quickly excluding it from the agenda. As a result, Beijing needs to quickly find some other venues to provide the dignity that Ma seeks and Taiwan richly deserves.