In his inaugural address last Tuesday, President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) sought to sweep away eight years of gloom and to set a cautious, yet optimistic, foundation for three-way relations between Taiwan, China and the US. But while Ma has bid farewell to the past, new and difficult problems have emerged.
Through a multi-layered strategic approach in his inaugural speech, Ma used security and trade relations between Taiwan and the US as backup and the potential for another power transfer as bargaining chips in an attempt to seek cross-strait negotiations with Beijing on highly sensitive issues such as the threat of Taiwan’s marginalization in the economic integration of Southeast Asia and its shrinking international space. At the same time, Ma utilized the improvement in cross-strait relations as a leverage for engaging in talks with Washington on intellectual property rights enforcement, import of US agricultural products and weapon sales to Taiwan.
Although Ma once again mentioned direct cross-strait weekend charter flights and allowing more Chinese tourists to visit Taiwan, he said this would hinge on whether Taiwan and China could move into a new era. He also appealed to Beijing to consider the fact that both nations are largely composed of ethnic Chinese — a tactic that is both forceful and compliant.
With full knowledge that Beijing would not respond in the short term, Ma still offered reconciliation as the objective of his cross-strait effort, saying that Taiwan would become a harbinger of peace, thereby implying that former president Chen Shui-bian’s (陳水扁) government was a harbinger of trouble — again combining force and compliancy.
The problem is, we cannot control how Beijing and the US will respond. Will Beijing maintain a passive position during long-term cross-strait negotiations? Can the Chinese authorities only give without asking for anything in return?
Ma has said that Taiwan’s relationship with the US as a trade partner and a security ally must be strengthened, that an adequate defense budget is needed and defensive weapons must be purchased. He has also said that a resumption of dialogue with Beijing should be built on the so-called “1992 consensus.” No doubt all these statements set Washington’s mind at ease.
However, it was the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) that opposed numerous weapon purchase bills during its term in opposition. The US has also refused to sell F-16C/D aircraft to Taiwan for political considerations, did not support the development of the Hsiung Feng IIE anti-ship missile and was in two minds over the sale of submarines.
The situation has changed. Will Ma and the administration of US President George W. Bush consider new measures once trust between Taiwan and the US has been restored?
If Taiwan, faced with China’s superior military power, does not develop or purchase the necessary defensive weapons, how can it strengthen its national defense and negotiate with Beijing from a position of confidence? The US and Taiwan still have different view of what constitutes essential defensive weapons, and these differences must be resolved.
In his inaugural speech, Ma said nothing about signing a free trade agreement (FTA) with the US. Coincidentally, US Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte did not mention it either when testifying before the US Senate Committee on Foreign Relations earlier this month, showing that the two parties have not reached a consensus on this issue.