Making sense of Ma’s Cabinet picks

By Lin Cho-shui 林濁水  / 

Wed, Oct 10, 2012 - Page 8

President Ma Ying-jeou’s (馬英九) administration has proven that it is incapable of governing. The economy is a mess and popular resentment is seething. In spite of all this, in his recent Cabinet reshuffle, Ma chose to keep Premier Sean Chen (陳冲) and ministers responsible for economic and financial policy in their posts, while replacing those in charge of national security, cross-strait and foreign relations. Such a reshuffle does not make any sense.

Members of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) who care about cross-strait relations are oddly polarized in their assessments of the Cabinet changes.

Some DPP members who in the past loudly called for their party’s cross-strait policies to follow Ma’s and accept that China and Taiwan are two areas of the same country are perturbed by the appointments of Wang Yu-chi (王郁琦) as Mainland Affairs Council (MAC) minister and King Pu-tsung (金溥聰) as the nation’s US representative, given the wide gulf between the two men in terms of qualifications and experience. These legislators feel that the appointments of the mature, experienced King to the US post and greenhorn Wang to the cross-strait job show that Ma takes relations with the US much more seriously than those with China.

Others in the DPP say that Ma appointed Wang to replace Lai Shin-yuan (賴幸媛), who was appointed in 2008 as MAC head to be a “brake pad” to avoid excessive haste in furthering cross-strait ties, because he is a close and trusted team member. These critics interpret this change as a warning that Ma is eager to engage in political negotiations with Beijing based on the “one China” principle.

Commentators who seek to defend the president’s choices say both assessments are wrong. They say that Ma will continue to follow former National Security Council secretary-general Su Chi’s (蘇起) strategy of staying friendly with the US while maintaining peaceful relations with China, and that the Cabinet and diplomatic appointments are simply tactical adjustments.

This argument is very unconvincing. King is the central figure among Ma’s trusted advisors, as well as his most indispensable strategic weapon. King also swore that he was not interested in becoming a government official. If the appointments were just a tactical adjustment, why would Ma find it necessary deploy his most powerful asset?

King’s appointment to Washington shows the Ma administration attaches great importance to relations with the US, but that does not mean that Ma thinks relations with China are unimportant. Even the US does not dare to underestimate China’s importance, and Ma even less so. Appointing Wang as the government’s go-between with China is indeed meant to win Beijing’s trust, but that does not mean that the government intends to take its China-friendly policies all the way to signing a cross-strait peace agreement. Sending King to Washington does signify a major strategic change of direction, but the direction is neither of the ones described above.

The strategy that Ma adopted when he took office in 2008 was not one of staying friendly with the US while maintaining peaceful relations with China. To the contrary — its aim was to get friendly with China while keeping ties with the US on an even keel.

Ma came to office just as the US sank into a world-shaking financial crisis. Meanwhile, China was thriving. People were predicting that China would replace the US first as the engine of global economic growth, and eventually as the world’s most powerful nation.

US President Barack Obama took office just a few months after Ma, and he led the way in kowtowing to China. Even some well-known liberal political scientists in Taiwan followed the trend by praising the China model. In their view, there was no longer any doubt that the “Beijing consensus” was superior to the “Washington consensus.”

Su, for his part, wrote the preface for the book 2050: Will China Be Number One? (2050中國第一?), whose authors said that the shift in global power relations had already begun.

It was against such a background that Ma declared in his first inauguration speech that he would work toward realizing a cross-strait peace agreement and a mechanism of mutual trust in military affairs between the two sides of the Taiwan Strait. The officials he appointed to coordinate his economic and political strategies included former vice president Vincent Siew (蕭萬長) and outgoing Straits Exchange Foundation Chairman Chiang Pin-kung (江丙坤), who between them were in charge of cross-strait economic integration, as well as Su, who was tasked with directing the prioritizing of cross-strait relations over international diplomacy. This new order of priority meant building friendly relations with China while merely placating the US, not of keeping friendly with the US while maintaining peaceful relations with China.

Ma appointed Lai as mainland council minister as a way of placating the DPP and its allies in the pan-green camp, and as a “brake pad” to make up for Chiang’s excessively close ties to both political and business interests. As a result, quick moves were made to establish direct sea, air and mail links across the Taiwan Strait and to sign a cross-strait Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement (ECFA), while the government delayed arms purchases from the US again and again. It initially turned down the offer of US military aircraft for disaster relief when Typhoon Morakot ravaged southern Taiwan.

Ma chose the sociable Jason Yuan (袁健生), who is neither equipped to carry out policies nor one of Ma’s trusted advisors, to serve as Taiwan’s representative to the US. Yuan’s function was to keep bilateral relations steady and socialize a bit if any problem cropped up. This shows that keeping friendly with the US while maintaining peaceful relations with China was just a slogan coined in response to pressure from the pan-green camp, and not a genuine policy.

This startegy looks familiar. When former president Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁) took office in 2000, he made a pledge of “four noes and one without” — namely that, barring a threat of military force by China, he would not declare Taiwanese independence, change the Republic of China’s national title, include the doctrine of special state-to-state relations in the Constitution, promote a referendum on unification or independence, or abolish the National Unification Council and National Unification Guidelines.

Chen took bold steps to open Taiwan up to China. He was keen for Chiang to join the Cabinet and for Siew to direct his overall cross-strait policy, and he appointed Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) to head the mainland council to keep the pan-greens quiet. Ma is doing the same kind of thing, but of course it is an easier task for him.

Now cross-strait links are in operation and the Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement (ECFA) has been signed, but Taiwan’s economy is nonetheless one of the worst performers in East Asia, and Taiwan is still in a tight spot diplomatically.

The conditions written into the ECFA and direct links agreements have caused Taiwan’s economy to run up against conflicts of interest between the two sides of the Taiwan Strait and suffer a detrimental, though not obvious, impact as a result. Consequently, the government has backed off from its goals of signing a cross-strait peace agreement and setting up a mechanism for mutual trust in military matters. Cross-strait cooperation has broken down on issues like China sending groups of officials to Taiwan to set up business deals, the proposed joint development of Pingtan County (平潭) in China’s Fujian Province, and cultural projects like the coproduction of a film about the war of resistance against Japan, and celebrating the centenary of the 1911 Xinhai Revolution.

During debates between the candidates standing for January’s presidential election, the DPP’s Tsai advocated emulating South Korea’s policy of approaching China in step with the rest of the world, for example by signing free-trade agreements with the EU and US first and leaving China until later. Ma still showed his China-friendly colors by arguing that approaching the world through China was the right way to go. Nevertheless, the two leading officials he had originally picked to oversee his policy of depending entirely on China politically and economically were out of the game long before the election, Su having resigned in 2010 and Siew still in office as vice president, but really on ice. This shows that Ma has realized that the although China factor cannot be taken lightly, Taiwan has no future if it depends solely on China.

Following the election, political commentator Nan Fang Shuo (南方朔) strongly recommended that Taiwan should start following the South Korean strategy instead of leaning so heavily on China. Ma’s actions demonstrate that he has taken this advice to heart, even if he does not say so. His government’s insistence on deregulating imports of US beef is evidence of this change of direction.

Although the details of the government’s industrial policy are still unclear, it has already laid down a framework through this recent deployment of top officials. In her new post as Taiwan’s envoy to the WTO, Lai is tasked with taking Taiwan into the international community in economics and trade, while King has been given a similar pioneering role in foreign relations.

If Ma has really recognized his past errors and is willing to and capable of setting them right, that is definitely something to be welcomed. However, the DPP’s failures when it was in government show that simply heading in the right direction is not enough.

The Ma administration will also have to work hard on formulating suitable industrial policies, and it will need the determination to see those policies through.

Lin Cho-shui is a former Democratic Progressive Party legislator.

Translated by Julian Clegg