Peace accord an electoral gamble

By Liu Shih-chung 劉世忠  / 

Sun, Oct 23, 2011 - Page 8

In the run-up to the January elections, President Ma Ying-jeou(馬英九) on Monday made a new campaign move by promising voters that, if elected, he would seriously consider pushing forward the signing of a peace accord with the People’s Republic of China within the next decade. Along with this, he stressed three “preconditions,” namely strong domestic support, a clear national need and legislative approval.

Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) Chairperson Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) criticized Ma’s new statements as “reckless, simplistic and inconsistent” and said they would jeopardize Taiwan’s sovereignty, change the “status quo” across the Taiwan Strait, endanger Taiwan’s democracy and undermine regional and strategic balance.

Facing huge doubts, even from his own camp, Ma further pledged that the government would obtain public approval through a referendum or evaluate the results of public polls before pushing for such a pact with China.

Ma’s new elaboration should be seen as more of an electoral scheme and political gamble than a well-calculated and well-prepared policy initiative to forge a peace accord.

First, Ma intends to frame the election debate and set the agenda in the next three months on cross-strait relations in a way that favors him over Tsai, who is the DPP’s presidential candidate. Ma’s camp understands that Tsai has focused her campaign on social justice and equality by highlighting his poor performance, economic backwardness and the widening gap between the rich and poor. Therefore, Ma needs to shift voter attention to cross-strait affairs, while at the same time continuing his smear campaign against Tsai and her running mate, Su Jia-chyuan (蘇嘉全).

However, as indicated by the way Ma and his administration single-handedly pushed forward the signing of the Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement (ECFA) with Beijing, he took advantage of his mandate from the 2008 victory, as well as his party’s absolute control of the legislative branch, to negotiate the agreement with his Chinese counterpart.

The “three preconditions” Ma attached to the potential peace accord talk are merely the same justifications that were used in the ECFA campaign. If Ma is re-elected and the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) continues to control the majority in the Legislative Yuan, his new government would be able to manipulate public polls or justify its action for negotiation on a peace accord.

Second, the idea of embracing a referendum is a huge political gamble by Ma. When the DPP was in power, then-president Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁) introduced three referendums in 2004 and 2008. All met with a strong backlash from the KMT, including Ma, the administration of then-US president George W. Bush and Beijing.

Not only has the KMT long been characterizing referendums as a “political taboo,” but Ma also opposed public calls for a referendum on the ECFA after he came to office. This about-face displayed Ma’s election-driven mentality and does not represent sincere respect for democratic mechanisms such as referendums.

Third, what is even riskier is that Ma’s discussion of a peace accord did not go through extensive evaluation on the possible impact it might have on Taiwan’s national interests. No details have been provided in terms of who would play the arbitrator if one side broke the deal. No requests have been made for Beijing to renounce its policy of using force against Taiwan or to dismantle its missiles targeting Taiwan and the region. Not to mention that Beijing has no interest in a peace accord.

During Ma’s first year in power, his government sent signals regarding negotiations on political issues, including a peace accord, especially when Association for Relations Across the Taiwan Strait Chairman Chen Yunlin (陳雲林) first visited Taipei in late 2008. Ma gave Beijing the impression he was interested in touching upon some political issues. Academics and think tanks close to the KMT and the Chinese Communist Party have jointly conducted research on the content of a peace accord.

However, Ma changed his original intention and adjusted the strategy toward “economics first, politics later” and “easier things first, hard issues later” after his administration suffered from the poor management in the aftermath of Typhoon Morakot in August 2009. Profound differences and mistrust appeared between Ma and China’s leaders.

Beijing has yet to respond to Ma’s new elaboration of a peace accord for several reasons. For one thing, it believes Ma is not trustworthy and his new stance is simply driven by electoral calculations.

The proposal for a referendum also crosses China’s “red line,” regardless of whether Ma was serious about it. Moreover, since China will have its own power succession late next year, negotiations on a peace accord with Ma are not at the top of its national agenda. For potential new Chinese leader Xi Jinping (習近平), maintaining economic growth and social stability are top priorities, not Ma’s hidden agenda.

Liu Shih-chung is a senior research fellow at the Taipei-based Taiwan Brain Trust.