Well, the fuss seems to be over. On Saturday, The Associated Press (AP) issued a dispatch that fell short of a full-fledged correction for what the Presidential Office felt were errors in an interview with President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) published earlier in the week.
Ma raised eyebrows on Wednesday when he held an impromptu press conference at Taipei Songshan Airport saying that he was misquoted on the existence of a specific timeline for political talks with China. The Government Information Office (GIO) released Chinese and English transcripts of the interview on Thursday, demanding an investigation into the “causes of distortions” if corrections were not made. On Saturday, the GIO issued a statement saying it was satisfied with the AP’s response and that the matter should be ended.
Indeed it should be ended — except perhaps to ask what caused the uproar in the first place. Reading the English transcript, AP’s article and its eventual “clarification,” it is hard to say what all the excitement was about. While some questioned whether the president should conduct interviews in English with foreign media, the transcript indicates that Ma handled himself well and he said nothing he has not said before concerning talks with China. AP did not distort the president’s comments, except perhaps to dwell a little too much on Ma’s intentions for a second term; but even here, the story’s emphasis was squarely on future economic and political circumstances, together with the will of the Taiwanese electorate at that time.
It is hard not to conclude that the entire issue was caused by Ma, or someone on his staff, reading the AP story and panicking. Why would the administration be so jumpy about the notion of political talks? There is an election next month, of course, and another in 2012, and with races tight and Ma’s own popularity soft, any suggestion that he is being overly cavalier in his dealings with Beijing could play out badly for the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT). It may even hamstring economic negotiations, which are still ongoing in key areas.
Clearly the problem lies deeper. While the economic benefits of signing trade deals with China help mask the political conditions attached, these strings cannot be avoided forever, even as Ma does his best to downplay the risk. After all, “political talks” is merely a euphemism for a more threatening term, political negotiations, which raises specters of lost sovereignty and annexation by a country with serious human rights issues.
However, several points can be made in defense of negotiations, despite the fears they are bound to engender. One is that as comforting as it seems, maintaining the “status quo” across the Taiwan Strait is maintaining a state of de facto war with China and as such is unsustainable. Another is that while unification may be its eventual outcome, negotiating will involve a series of specific, cumulative political agreements aimed at establishing tangible guarantees, military and political, of cross-strait security, which over time would transform relations across the Taiwan Strait, potentially making unification less frightening or even unnecessary.
Yet perhaps the best thing about political dialogue with China stems from the recent controversy, which, if nothing else, reveals just how vulnerable the KMT is on the issue. At a time when the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) must demonstrate political viability, especially for national elections where relations with China will be paramount, a leadership opportunity presents itself.
While the KMT is forced to euphemize and equivocate, DPP leaders should speak openly about the need for political negotiation. This would require them to resist the impulse to use the issue to score political points. It would also require them to develop a credible platform to advance negotiations when the time comes and to deal with the anxiety such discussions will inevitably produce.
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