At Large

Fresh Air Over the Taiwan Strait

Our correspondent covers the inauguration of the new president, Ma Ying-jeou, who's getting along nicely with mainland China.

By 5.23.08

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TAIPEI, Taiwan -- Nearly 60 years ago, the Republic of China's government, after losing a civil war to Mao Tse-tung's Communists, fled to this island, along with more than a million followers. Under the Nationalist (Kuomintang) party it ruled, first autocratically, then finally as a multi-party democracy until 2000. That year, the voters, tired of the KMT, replaced it with the pro-independence Democratic People's Party.

This March, after eight years of the erratic leadership of President Chen Shui-bian and a series of corruption scandals involving his administration, the KMT's ticket of Ma Ying-jeou as president and Vincent Siew as vice-president, swamped the DPP. (The KMT had already won nearly three quarters of the seats in the legislature in January.)

As a parting "gift," Chen's administration handed the new government one last scandal: two middlemen, picked to pay Papua New Guinea $29.8 million to restore its diplomatic relations with Taiwan, were caught apparently pocketing the grease-the-skids money. During Chen's second term his wife and several cabinet ministers and aides were indicted for corruption and, now out of office, he may be, too.

In a very democratic, inclusive, and exuberant inauguration on Tuesday, President Ma signaled that his administration will enter into a new era with the China mainland, with the emphasis on expanded cooperation between the two while simultaneously calling for eliminating tensions between Taiwan and the Communist mainland.

This tall, confident Harvard graduate shows just how much times have changed. As recently as 30 years ago, the rhetorical emphasis on Taiwan was on "national recovery." That is, taking back the mainland. This was widely proclaimed on street banners and posters.

In those days, the Kuomintang was largely a party of those who had fled the mainland after the civil war, and their descendants, while the majority of the population was made up of descendants of immigrants from the mainland in the early 19th century and considered "Taiwanese." The DPP was largely a Taiwanese party and reflected the fact that most Taiwanese had few ties to the mainland; hence, their interest in independence for the island.

As President, Chen Shui-bian was unpredictable, often publicly thumbing his nose at mainland China. This always produced a loud, negative reaction from Beijing, with much gong-banging and rocket-rattling. Military forces along the coast were beefed up, hinting at an invasion of Taiwan if it went too far.

The United States is required to abide by its Taiwan Relations Act. In the event Taiwan were to be attacked, we would have to defend it. Chen's zigs and zags caused collective tooth-grinding at the State Department. What the U.S. most wanted, and didn't get, in the DPP years, was predictability and stability in the Taiwan Strait. What it got was uncertainty. Neither Beijing nor we wanted -- or could afford -- a shooting war there.

The Kuomintang, revived after years out of office, has reinvented itself, with a much greater Taiwanese membership (Vice President Siew is Taiwanese) and a sophisticated outlook on cross-Strait relations.

No sooner had Dr. Ma been elected than he sent Vice President-elect Siew to Hainan, a resort island off the south China coast, ostensibly to a conference where "coincidentally" he met with PRC President Hu Jintao. The two discussed moving forward with long-stalled plans for regular direct charter flights between Taiwan and the mainland. Next week, the KMT's chairman will be in Beijing to sign a formal agreement to launch every-weekend flights beginning in July. Currently, there are flights only a few times a year on particular holidays. The ROC estimates that the number of annual mainland visitors will increase from 80,000 to nearly one million.

Until now the Communist government in Beijing has exerted steady pressure on Taiwan to "cry uncle" and be absorbed. It has routinely tried to lure the two dozen countries that diplomatically recognize Taiwan into switching sides. It has also kept Taiwan from obtaining "observer" status in the World Health Organization.

In his inaugural address before an enthusiastic audience of 10,000, President Ma said, "I sincerely hope that the two sides of the Taiwan Strait can seize this historic opportunity to achieve peace and co-prosperity." He foresees a bilateral agreement building on what is called the Consensus of 1992 (i.e., "one China, two respective interpretations"). Former President Chen rejected that document. Ma also set down three "no's"-- no unification, no independence, no use of force--during his presidency. He said Taiwan wants not only security and prosperity, "it wants dignity," meaning that in a new period of cordiality and cooperation it wants the mainland to lay off trying to isolate it.

Patience is a characteristic often attributed to Chinese people. A call for patience was the underlying motif of the new president's address and, so far, it seems to have been well received on the other side of the Taiwan Strait and in Washington (with a sigh of relief).

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About the Author
Peter Hannaford was closely associated with the late President Reagan for a number of years. He is a member of the board of the Committee on the Present Danger. His latest book is “Presidential Retreats.”