China shadow looming, Taiwan's Ma set for 2nd term

May 18, 2012 - 12:36 AM
Taiwan President

FILE - In this Saturday, Jan. 14, 2012 file photo, Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou declares victory in the presidential election in Taipei, Taiwan. Ma has leveraged growing economic ties with China to reduce tensions to their lowest level since the two sides split in 1949. (AP Photo/Wally Santana)

TAIPEI, Taiwan (AP) — Taiwan President Ma Ying-jeou has leveraged growing economic ties with China to reduce tensions to their lowest level since the two sides split in 1949. China's incessant effort to draw the democratic island closer politically has been on the back burner, and as Ma's second term begins Sunday the question is whether he can keep it there.

China continues to insist that Ma's self-governing island of 23 million people is part of its territory, to be brought back into the fold by persuasion if possible, by force if necessary. But Taiwan, backed by a United States that is re-engaging in Asia after a decade-long preoccupation in the Middle East, has no desire to give up its de facto independence.

Analysts say that Ma, who won re-election over a more China-wary opposition, probably won't be pressed by Beijing anytime soon, but might toward the end of his second four-year term.

Since Ma took office in 2008, trade volumes between Taiwan and China have soared. Commercial barriers have tumbled, and tourism and other exchanges have become commonplace.

That may not be enough for Beijing, which says concrete progress toward formal unification is the most useful metric for measuring Ma's performance. On that point, Taiwan and the authoritarian mainland remain far apart.

In 1992, informal representatives of the two sides acknowledged that there is only one China, but took no clear position on whether it is the People's Republic of China on the mainland or the Republic of China on Taiwan.

Taiwan's mass circulation United Daily News said Wednesday that Beijing appears to hope that Ma's overtures will eventually "go beyond the 1992 Consensus, and reach the more concrete formula that 'both sides belong to one China.'"

If Ma ever accepted that formula, it could be seen as signaling his acceptance that Taiwan must eventually be ruled by Beijing.

During his re-election campaign, Ma raised the prospect of a formal peace treaty between the two sides, his first clear political move in Beijing's direction. But he quickly drew back after popular opposition to the idea spiked, an illustration of how he is constrained by Taiwan's boisterous electorate.

Despite supporting the president's efforts to engage China economically, that electorate strongly resists political integration, amid a growing tendency to define itself as Taiwanese and not Chinese at all.

"People are open to dealing with China economically and even going there to work," said political scientist Ketty Chen of Taipei's National Taiwan University. "But they still consider themselves Taiwanese and see China as just another foreign country, even though they speak the same language."

Public opinion polls have repeatedly shown that no more than 10 percent of Taiwan's people want political integration with the mainland, while 60 to 70 percent favor the status quo. The remainder support formal independence, a step that China says would lead to war.

Political scientist Alexander Huang of Taipei's Tamkang University said Beijing appears to appreciate the political constraints under which Ma is operating.

"I suspect that China will not push Ma too hard during the coming four years," Huang said. "It has an increasingly good understanding of Taiwanese politics, and understands the pressures that Ma is facing."

Another reason to expect a moderate Taiwan policy from Beijing, Huang said, is China's preoccupation with its own problems. Its once overheated economy has cooled abruptly, and political troubles seem to be cascading in the wake of unspecified allegations of malfeasance against one-time Communist Party high-flyer Bo Xilai.

"I just don't think it's wise for China to take on a big issue like Taiwan at this juncture," Huang said.

Political scientist George Tsai of Taipei's Chinese Culture University said Beijing will have to determine if it wants to take advantage of Ma's weakened political standing at home, which has come to the fore in recent weeks following a series of conspicuous missteps on economic policy.

"They can either take advantage of his position, or they can decide to not apply pressure on him," Tsai said.

Chen said she expected that China would hold off on pressing Ma during the next year or two, but could change its tune after that, even at the risk of reinvigorating Ma's political opponents.

"After the dust settles China will put more pressure on Taiwan," she said. "China will try to extract concessions from Ma that could put his own party in a difficult position in future election campaigns."