Baptism by fire for Taiwan’s President Ma


The success of the first round of talks between Taiwan and the China mainland is a feather in the cap of Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou, who made improved relations with Beijing the central theme of his campaign platform. But he has yet to display his acumen where foreign policy is concerned.

For one thing, immediately after his electoral triumph May 20, the president-elect made public his plan to visit certain key countries — the United States, Japan and Singapore — which he knew he would not be able to visit once he was sworn in as president.

That was a mistake. The request put Washington in an awkward situation since it did not want to disappoint Ma and, at the same time, did not want to provoke Beijing. In the end, the U.S. said no and, once that had happened, it became difficult for Japan or Singapore to say yes.

As an expert in international relations said, “You don’t ask a question until you know the answer.” Ma should have privately explored the possibility with the U.S. before announcing publicly his intention to visit.

To make up for its rebuff to Ma, the Bush administration is likely to grant him an extended transit visa when he goes to Central America later this year, just as it did for then President Chen Shui-bian when Taiwan-U.S. relations were good in the early years of the Bush administration.

Currently, there is another problem in relations with Washington. That is the question of a large arms package that the U.S. promised to sell to Taiwan in 2001 but which has been delayed repeatedly because the Taiwan legislature refused to approve funds. Now funds have been approved, and Taiwan is requesting F-16 aircraft in addition, but top U.S. officials appear to be unenthusiastic about the sales, partly for fear of provoking China.

In addition to the problematic relationship with the U.S., the guarantor of Taiwan’s security, the Ma administration currently has to deal with a crisis in relations with Japan, Taiwan’s second-largest trading partner and one of its most important supporters in Asia.

This stems from the sinking of a Taiwan leisure fishing boat after a collision with a Japan Coast Guard vessel near the disputed Diaoyu, or Senkaku, islands. Those islands, which are under Japanese control, are also claimed by China and Taiwan.

While fishing disputes are not uncommon, this issue is particularly sensitive because Ma, while studying in the U.S. in the early 1970s, had taken part in a movement to defend the islands as the Republic of China’s territory. As mayor of Taipei, he had criticized then-President Chen for taking a soft position vis-a-vis Japan on this issue.

Now that he is president, Ma finds himself in the unenviable position of having to either adopt a weak position or to risk alienating Japan on this issue. Two days after Beijing protested to Japan, Ma issued a statement in which he made three demands: that Japan release the captain, pay compensation, and apologize.

It turned out that a Taiwan Coast Guard vessel in the vicinity was ordered to leave the scene by a foreign ministry official, apparently for fear of sparking an incident with Japan. Since then the official, Tsai Ming-yao, executive director of the Committee on Japanese Affairs within Taiwan’s Foreign Ministry, has resigned and the committee itself has been abolished.

The fishing boat’s captain, Ho Hung-yi, was held for questioning by Japan for three days. A Japanese investigation report accused both him and the captain of the patrol ship of having caused navigational hazards through negligence.

In this highly charged environment, where there is even talk of war with Japan in the air on the part of jingoist politicians, Ma will have to navigate carefully so as not to permanently damage relations with Tokyo, while at the same time not appear to back down on issues of principle, in particular, on sovereignty over the disputed islets.

Japan appears eager not to escalate the dispute. It has released the captain, agreed to pay compensation and expressed regrets. The question now is whether Taiwan will consider the issue closed and accept “regrets” as equivalent to an apology.

Less than a month after his inauguration, Ma is undergoing a baptism of fire. How he deals with the U.S. and Japan, Taiwan’s main international supporters, will shape his presidency in the coming four years and, possibly, determine whether he will be able to serve a second term.

Frank Ching is a journalist and commentator.