In a speech to a US think tank on Thursday last week, President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) declared that his “approach to the Republic of China’s [ROC] national security is already at an optimum.” By making the pursuit of closer ties with China a central pillar of that approach, Ma made a strategic bet that Beijing would reciprocate with a more cooperative cross-strait policy of its own. Now approaching three years into his presidency, it is clear that Ma’s bet has not paid off.
Ma’s pursuit of the Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement (ECFA), which was finally realized last summer, was a bold move aimed at not only improving the Taiwanese economy, but also securing Taiwan’s future. While it is certain to benefit Taiwan economically in the years ahead, it has not significantly improved cross-strait stability or expanded Taipei’s broader international engagement.
Ma had hoped that closer ties to China and the abandonment of any talk of independence would foster greater stability and lead to an easing of Beijing’s rigid Taiwan policy. In particular, he hoped that Beijing would drop its objections to greater Taiwanese engagement with the international community. While Taiwan and Singapore are discussing a free-trade agreement, Taipei is still quite limited in its interactions both with other states and with international organizations. Just last week, South Korea ended its 40-year military officer exchange program with Taiwan; China had made the termination a precondition for establishing its own such program with Seoul.
Then this week, it was revealed that the WHO — again under pressure from Beijing — referred to Taiwan as a province of China, dropping altogether the more ambiguous nomenclature of “Chinese Taipei.”
China has likewise increased pressure on the US to downgrade its relationship with Taipei. Beijing, for example, cut off -military-to-militarywith Washington ties for an entire year after the US sold arms to Taiwan in January last year. Ma’s gamble was designed, in part, to reassure the US after the US-Taiwan relationship soured during former president Chen Shui-bian’s (陳水扁) administration. He hoped to demonstrate to Washington that Taiwan is a responsible regional actor, one that favors the “status quo.”
Ma, however, stressed repeatedly that stability in the Taiwan Strait was best served by a Taiwan able to effectively defend itself against Chinese coercion, and he has accordingly lobbied for new weapons sales — especially of F-16C/D jet fighters and diesel submarines. However, with the exception of completing a former US president George W. Bush-era sale of minor weapons to Taiwan in January last year, US President Barack Obama’s administration has refused to sell Taiwan the arms it needs most.
Beijing has aggressively and successfully stoked fear in Washington that further sales will seriously harm the US-China relationship. As a result, Taiwan is no less isolated now than it was prior to the Ma administration.
Nor has China eased up on its military buildup along the Taiwan Strait. According to reports, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) fielded a new model of missile across from Taiwan earlier this year and continues to add to its arsenal there at a rapid pace; there are now about 1,600 cruise and ballistic missiles pointed at Taiwan, an increase of about 500 weapons over the previous year.