Ma pursues defense plus China’s blessing


PARIS — Taiwan President Ma Ying-jeou, who marked his first 100 days in office last week, has wrought major changes in Taiwan’s relations with both China and the United States, mending relations damaged by his predecessor, the pro-independence Chen Shui-bian, who insisted on pushing the envelope at every turn.

Ma’s first presidential trip abroad this month illustrates the change in both style and substance. He went to Paraguay and the Dominican Republic to attend the inauguration of the presidents of those countries, which have diplomatic relations with Taiwan.

Like Chen, he transited the U.S. on his way to and from South and Central America. However, unlike his predecessor, Ma did not attempt to politicize those transit stops in the U.S. and make them more important than the ostensible destinations.

While Chen made every attempt during his “transit” stops to meet the U.S. press, give speeches and attend public events, Ma stayed in his hotel room. True, he met with a few American legislators and received telephone calls from others, but those events took place within the confines of his hotel.

Such behavior no doubt makes the relationship with Washington less fraught since the White House no longer has to worry that the transit visitor was trying to gain political capital back home by provoking Beijing while hiding behind the skirts of the U.S.

A state of confrontation between Taiwan and the mainland caused relations between the island and the U.S. to deteriorate. Chen’s behavior turned a strongly supportive Bush administration into one that was highly suspicious of his every action.

Ma also has made it clear that Taiwan will no longer practice “checkbook diplomacy,” offering money to other countries to break relations with Beijing and establish ties with Taipei. This, however, may be risky unless China on its part agrees not to try to woo away any of the 23 countries that still recognize Taiwan.

Of course, Beijing doesn’t have to do much actively to win over some of the small impoverished countries that now recognize Taiwan. The very possibility of receiving aid or doing business with the major growth engine that is China today may be enough for some countries to want to break with Taiwan. Beijing may well have to take steps to prevent this from happening by, say, making it clear that diplomatic relations are not a prerequisite for trade and, perhaps, even aid.

As for relations with the U.S., they have been so badly damaged that today Washington seems no longer eager to sell Taiwan the weapons that it offered to sell seven years ago. Taiwan is partly to blame for this due to the political gridlock during the Chen years, when the opposition-controlled legislature refused to cooperate on things like approving an arms purchase budget.

That’s now in the past, and Ma, whose party is solidly in control of the Parliament, has said his goal is to spend 3 percent of Taiwan’s GDP on defense.

This needs the understanding of both the U.S. and China. So far, the Bush administration has not even gone through the procedure of informing Congress of its intent to sell Taiwan the weapons that the Ma administration has agreed to buy. In fact, if things are allowed to drag on, the decision may well not be made until a new U.S. administration is in office, which means another substantial delay.

Ma is sufficiently concerned about this that he has called on the U.S. to speed up the process of approving the $11 billion arms deal by notifying Congress of the package, which includes Patriot missiles, diesel-fueled submarines and anti-submarine helicopters.

China, too, needs to understand that Taiwan has to continue to procure weapons from the U.S. even if Beijing no longer threatens to take over the island by force. After all, the Anti-Secession Law of 2005 authorizes the Chinese government to use “nonpeaceful means” to take over the island, and well over a thousand missiles are pointed at Taiwan.

Beijing should understand that for Taiwan to have the confidence to strengthen economic and other ties with mainland China, the island must be able to defend itself, even if the immediate danger of an attack has subsided.

Beijing should also understand that better Taiwan-U.S. relations help rather than harm cross-strait relations, just as better cross-strait relations should be helpful for both China and Taiwan to improve relations with Washington.

Frank Ching is a Hong Kong-based journalist and commentator. (