When President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) came to office in May 2008, he announced that one of his top priorities would be to “repair” ties with the US and enhance relations with Japan, while fostering closer relations with Beijing.
Since then, this triangular strategy has turned into an odd geometrical shape in which the angles are not symmetrical.
No sooner had Ma entered the Presidential Office than his Cabinet was engaging in a largely avoidable war of words with Tokyo over the Diaoyutai Islands. In the ensuing months, the government would threaten to expel Japan’s envoy and finally got its wish after the latter resigned after stating the obvious about Taiwan’s “unresolved” status at an academic forum.
As for the US, with the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) enjoying a comfortable majority in the legislature and Washington initially willing to show support for Ma’s bid to lower tensions in the Taiwan Strait, relations got off to a good start, which culminated in the approval of a long-delayed US arms sale to Taiwan. However, Taipei’s mishandling of the lifting of a ban on US beef and signs that the Ma administration was drifting uncomfortably into the Chinese sphere of influence have since cooled enthusiasm for Ma in some US diplomatic circles.
While Taipei’s relations with Tokyo and Washington have waxed and waned, ties with Beijing remain consistently, if not preternaturally, positive — even if the latter failed to reciprocate Ma’s goodwill by drawing down its military. A number of agreements have been inked, with a proposed economic cooperation framework agreement (ECFA) that suits Beijing’s strategy of unification — yet inspires great apprehension among many Taiwanese — on the brink of being signed.
Agreements aside, the manner in which Taipei has treated visiting dignitaries from the three countries is indicative of where the focus of the Ma administration lies. While the likes of Association for Relations Across the Taiwan Strait Chairman Chen Yunlin (陳雲林) and Shanghai Mayor Han Zheng (韓正) have been treated to banquets and security reminiscent of that seen in China, Japanese and US officials have been forced into a low profile that, at times, has bordered on the ignoble.
Taipei 101 was lit up like a Christmas tree to mark Han’s visit; in contrast, a visit a week earlier by US Representative Lincoln Diaz-Balart was so low-key that the Taiwan-friendly Diaz-Balart would not even grant interviews and for a while his presence in the country could not be confirmed by US officials.
Former Japanese prime minister Taro Aso was also in Taiwan last week and met briefly with Ma, former KMT chairman Wu Poh-hsiung (吳伯雄) and Legislative Speaker Wang Jin-pyng (王金平) at Taipei Guest House, a hotel and Wang’s official residence, respectively. Amid allegations by the opposition that Ma had “denigrated” the nation by meeting Aso as a “private citizen” rather than president, Aso remained diplomatic and said the low profile was at his own request. That is a possibility, but after almost two years of visits by foreign diplomats, there is no denying that only Chinese officials and semi-officials have been treated like royalty, which speaks volumes of the government’s frame of mind.
If the Ma administration saw relations with China, Japan and the US as equally important, we would not have seen such unequal treatment on so many occasions. In Ma’s strategy, China is primus inter pares, which raises serious questions about his claim that the cross-strait negotiations that will determine the future of this nation are between equals.