HONG KONG — Taiwan’s leader Ma Ying-jeou did something unusual late last month. With the next presidential election almost two years away, he held a televised debate with the leader of the opposition Democratic Progressive Party, Tsai Ing-wen, thereby giving her the status and media exposure she badly wanted.
It was a daring and high-risk move, but he did it because his support ratings were so low that he was having difficulty convincing the electorate that a key economic agreement with China that he has been pushing was in Taiwan’s interests.
All indications are he succeeded in pulling it off. According to polling by the United Daily News, on March 18 — two years after his election in a 2008 landslide — his support rating was only 27 percent. Immediately after the April 25 debate, it rose to 38 percent.
The opposition may have lost the debate, but it is far from being crushed. The support rating for Ms. Tsai is 50 percent, substantially higher than for Ma.
While the chances of success for the Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement (ECFA) look distinctly better, Ma is still weak and any setback in the next two years could turn him into a one-term president. That is probably good for him.
Ma has proven to be a somewhat less than inspirational leader except in the area of cross-strait relations, where he has performed brilliantly. His government over the past two years has concluded 12 agreements with China on such things as flights, food safety, tourism and mutual judicial assistance.
Of course, those achievements were possible only because of China’s cooperation. China appreciates Ma’s rejection of the pro-independence policies of his predecessor, Chen Shui-bian. But it has made clear that its ultimate goal remains political unification between the island and the mainland.
This topic is always on the minds of Chinese leaders. On April 30, Chinese President Hu Jintao opened the Shanghai Expo, calling it the “pride of all Chinese people, including those across the Taiwan Strait,” and again urged the two sides to work together to realize the great renaissance of the Chinese nation.
Ma has made it clear he will discuss only economic, not political, issues. Certainly, he knows that he will not be able to carry the Taiwan public with him if he enters into political negotiations, even if he were so minded.
Ma has made no secret of his real reason for negotiating a trade agreement with China: his fear is that Taiwan, like North Korea, will be excluded from the network of trade accords that increasingly link other countries of the region. He hopes that, once an ECFA with China is completed, Taiwan will have China’s blessing to sign free trade agreements with other countries.
It is far from clear that Beijing will go along with that, but the likelihood of Beijing continuing to make concessions to Taiwan is much greater if Ma’s domestic political situation appears precarious. In fact, the weaker Ma appears, the more likely China is to shore him up since it does not want the pro-independence opposition party to regain power.
So far, China has been unwilling to budge on the issue of arms sales. President Ma, in a recent CNN interview, pointed out something that China has refused to acknowledge. “If the U.S. reduces arms sales to Taiwan below the current level, it will reduce confidence in this part of the world. Taiwan needs the arms to defend this country.”
China has not yet recognized that the way to winning the hearts and minds of the people of Taiwan is not to make them feel weak and vulnerable. It takes confidence for Taiwan to embark on negotiations with China that could prove fruitful in the long term. Taiwan needs arms to bolster its confidence.
However, even on the arms sales issue, Beijing has been relatively benign toward Taiwan. While Beijing excoriated Washington for selling $6.4 billion in arms to Taiwan, it has not uttered any criticism of Taiwan for having requested the weapons in the first place.
A glimpse into China’s position was provided the week before last at an East-West Center conference in Hong Kong. Professor Chu Shulong of Tsinghua University told the audience that Taiwan, in fact, has a right to purchase arms from abroad. It is just that no country has the right to sell arms to Taiwan.
A more enlightened China would certainly recognize the absurdity of such a position.
Frank Ching is a Hong Kong-based journalist and commentator. (Frank.firstname.lastname@example.org)