EDITORIAL: Has Ma Ying-jeou seen the light?

Tue, Mar 18, 2008 - Page 8

It seemed like a welcome shift last week when Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) presidential candidate Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) said that the fate of Taiwan should be decided by Taiwanese alone. Ma reiterated that position in newspaper ads and signed a declaration condemning the "Anti-Secession" Law enacted by China in 2005 or any other policies that would "hurt the Taiwanese people's feelings."

Even Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) presidential candidate Frank Hsieh (謝長廷) has applauded Ma's apparent turnaround, the same Ma who, in 2006, had argued that the future of Taiwan should be decided by both sides of the Taiwan Strait.

Whether this rhetorical shift is heartfelt -- a coming out of sorts, a la former president Lee Teng-hui (李登輝) in the 1990s -- or mere politicking has yet to be clarified, but the fact remains that Ma is saying these things publicly and within earshot of Beijing. It wouldn't be the first time in the history of democratic politics that, as election day looms, parties drift toward the center.

And in Taiwan, the center is the "status quo." However uncomfortable it is, the "status quo" is, ironically, quite comfortable. It is the invisible enemy we know rather than the unknown of a sudden shift. It's also a vote-winner, as maintaining that comfortable level of uncertainty seems to be what Taiwanese of all stripes want most.

Welcome as Ma's "determination to defend Taiwan's sovereignty" might be -- and let us assume, for the sake of argument, that he means what he said -- his vow to create friendly cross-strait relations might be more difficult to achieve than he thinks. For upon hearing his comments, Beijing could be forgiven for accusing Ma of himself "heightening cross-strait tensions," in similar fashion to what Ma in the same breath accused the DPP of doing over the past eight years.

Should Ma decide to go down this path, he would soon find -- as every other president before him has found -- that peace across the Taiwan Strait, or its absence, is not in the hands of Taiwanese and their leaders, but in those of the regime in Beijing, which seems to think that time is on its side and that the annexation of Taiwan is inevitable.

In recent years, Beijing had placed its hopes in the KMT, which it saw as a surrogate, a backdoor entry to Taiwan. If Ma shuts that door, it will be 1996 all over again, with the additional layer of 12 years of budding Taiwanese consciousness. Should that happen, all that talk about a common market, of small, medium and big links and friendlier ties will mean very little.

If Ma becomes president, he will soon find out why his predecessors Lee and Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁) were so reviled in Beijing.

And soon enough, following his rude awakening, life would go back to normal, back to the "status quo." The economy would be no better, no worse, and the main question Ma would need to answer would be the one Lee and Chen had to juggle: How to defend Taiwan against a giant whose pride has yet again been hurt, and who is realizing that the longer the "status quo" prevails, the more time is on Taiwan's side.

Ultimately, Beijing's eyesight is blurry. Lee, Chen, Ma -- for all it cares, Taiwanese on Saturday will be voting for "Ma Teng-bian" or "Hsieh Ying-hui." It doesn't care who is in power in Taiwan. What Beijing covets is real estate, all 35,980km2 of it.