In tone, the inaugural address of President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) differed distinctly from the one his predecessor, Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁), made eight years ago. In substance, they were remarkably similar, particularly in setting Taiwan’s stance toward China.
After being sworn in on Tuesday, Ma was conciliatory, saying: “We will launch a new era of cross-strait relations.”
In contrast, Chen was defiant at his inauguration, declaring: “Taiwan stands up,” an echo of Chinese leader Mao Zedong (毛澤東) — Mao stood atop Tiananmen, the Gate of Heavenly Peace, in Beijing in 1949 and proclaimed: “China stands up.”
Both pronouncements were intended as declarations of independence.
Ma sounded less bold than Chen, but nonetheless asserted that Taiwan would resist Beijing’s attempts to take control of the nation, saying: “We will maintain the status quo.”
Therein lies the peril of continued confrontation that would be contrary to the conventional wisdom of many US and other Western “China hands.” They have contended that the return of the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) to power heralds better relations between Taipei and Beijing. David Brown, of Johns Hopkins University, lauded “Ma’s more positive attitude toward China.”
With Ma having made the overture to fresh negotiations, it is Beijing’s turn to respond.
Ralph Cossa, president of the Pacific Forum, a Honolulu think tank, suggested Beijing may be pondering what to do now.
“Beijing knows how to deal with an unfriendly government in Taipei,” he said. “What Beijing doesn’t know is how to handle a friendly government in Taipei.”
Ma’s soft rhetoric masked a firm line that becomes apparent with scrutiny. He said negotiations, which broke down during the Chen regime, should resume based on a “1992 consensus” that called for mutual acceptance of a “one China” principle with different interpretations. Beijing has vigorously rejected that approach.
During his four-year term, Ma said, Taiwan will not unify with China. He urged China to discard its threat to use military force against Taiwan. Beijing has insisted that Taiwan is part of China and has given no evidence of giving up the threat of force. China’s People’s Liberation Army would surely oppose any hint of such policy.
Ma said: “We will strengthen bilateral relations with the United States, our foremost security ally and trading partner.”
Beijing has asserted that the US has been interfering in the internal affairs of China. Ma said Taiwan would “acquire necessary defensive weaponry to form a solid national defense force,” which means buying more arms from the US, which Beijing has repeatedly condemned.
The new president said his government would “enter consultations with mainland China over Taiwan’s international space and a possible cross-strait peace accord.”
For years, Beijing has sought, with considerable success, to block Taiwan’s entry to the UN and other global organizations and to establish normal diplomatic relations with other nations.
A peace accord between Taipei and Beijing would require Beijing to recognize the government in Taiwan, at least tacitly, as being legitimate.
Ma said: “Taiwan doesn’t just want security and prosperity. It wants dignity.”
Beijing has shown no inkling that it would be willing to accord the stature and dignity Ma seeks.
Perhaps the only element in Ma’s speech that Beijing might applaud was his commitment that Taiwan would not declare formal independence while he was president.