How can Ma appease the military?

By J. Michael Cole 寇謐將  / 

Thu, Aug 13, 2009 - Page 8

President Ma Ying-jeou’s (馬英九) Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) administration is now bound and driven by big business and financial institutions to a degree that is probably unprecedented in the history of the party.

Given the close relationship between big business, the banking sector and the KMT, it comes as no surprise that Ma’s cross-strait policies have been tremendously beneficial to those sectors.

Whatever friction may have existed under previous practices of the party, such as under former president Lee Teng-hui (李登輝), has largely disappeared. This is mostly the result of the leaders’ divergent assessments of the impact of cross-strait economic integration, as well as their respective stances on the question of Taiwanese independence.

For Lee — whose views on Taiwanese sovereignty took precedence over the party’s business interests — cross-strait economic integration had negative externalities, which accounted for his efforts, especially after his re-election in 1996, to proceed with caution and “go south” — that is, diversify foreign investment destinations to minimize reliance on China.

The Ma administration, for its part, appears to be indentured to the business community, and it clearly sees cross-strait economic liberalization as less threatening.

In fact, Ma and his aides see integration as a stabilizing force, a view that is thoroughly supported by the business community.

Another important factor is that while Ma has made an undertaking not to attempt unification during his first term, this development remains a long-term objective of today’s KMT.

But while Ma can count on the corporate and financial sectors to back his policies, and while he can expect full backing — especially now that he is KMT chairman — from the legislature, in which the pan-blue camp controls about three-quarters of the seats, there are two institutions that he cannot afford to neglect: the Taiwanese military and the US government.

Ma’s pronouncements on the military balance in the Taiwan Strait, added to his stated willingness to procure for the Taiwanese military the means to defend the nation, have at times sounded paradoxical when placed against his public statements on reconciliation with Beijing.

Indeed, his desire to purchase weapons from Washington cannot but have strained relations with Beijing — and yet, this is one area where Ma has tended to sound like his predecessors.

It would be difficult to reconcile Ma’s public statements on defense appropriations with his political statements vis-a-vis Beijing and ostensible efforts to undermine the nation’s defenses — for example, downgrading the Han Kuang military exercises — were it not for the fact that the military is just about the last branch of government that remains wary of Beijing’s intentions, as evidenced by its reaction to the Japan Defense Ministry’s White Paper that was released earlier this month.

As such, the military probably represents the last challenge by a domestic constituency to Ma’s cross-strait policies. One way to placate the military and keep its criticism to a minimum is to maintain weapons procurement and to keep military spending stable.

Ma has yet to consolidate his powerbase to an extent that he can afford to ignore the disquiet of the military, although purges, in the form of corruption probes, could soon change that by whittling away at the sectors of the military that remain resistant to unification — in other words, the pan-green elements within the armed forces.

When it comes to Washington, Ma has been forced to hedge against the possibility of abandonment while uncertainty remains in the Taiwan Strait.

Over the years, proof of political commitment and good relations with the US has largely come in the form of permission to purchase arms.

If Ma were to suddenly cut off the arms procurement spigot with the US, Washington could react either by increasing pressure on Taipei — especially through US constituents who fear a scenario in which Taiwan becomes part of the Chinese camp in East Asia — or abandoning it altogether, which would have serious ramifications for Taiwan’s ability to defend itself should cross-strait rapprochement derail.

Ma cannot disregard the interests of the military establishment. The key question is: As his powerbase grows and as the military is “cleansed” of what he sees as revisionist elements, will he become increasingly unresponsive to its appeals?

One way to assess this will be to see how the military is reorganized and what conclusions are reached following the corruption crackdown.

Another will be to look at Ma’s pronouncements on military expenditure, and whether words are turned into deeds — in other words, whether weapons are actually purchased and fielded.

J. Michael Cole is a writer based in Taipei.