Re-elected Taiwan leader: China politics can wait

January 15, 2012 - 2:50 AM
Taiwan Presidential Election

Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou declares his victory in the presidential election, Saturday, Jan. 14, 2012, in Taipei, Taiwan. Ma won a close re-election fight, leveraging his message of greater prosperity through expanded ties with China to beat his populist-minded opponent, Tsai Ing-wen. (AP Photo/Vincent Yu)

TAIPEI, Taiwan (AP) — Economy first, politics later — if ever. That's the mandate Taiwanese voters gave their newly re-elected president on relations with the Chinese mainland, which is bent on achieving unity with the democratic island but will have to wait for it.

Beijing favored President Ma Ying-jeou over a challenger from a pro-independence party, and has worked with Ma to build closer economic links. But while Chinese President Hu Jintao would like to see progress in repairing the political rift between Taiwan and the mainland before he leaves office this year, Ma made clear after declaring victory Saturday that he wants to strengthen economic ties before addressing political issues.

He told reporters there is no clear timetable for beginning any political talks with the authoritarian mainland, the world's second-biggest economy.

"With mainland relations, we will work on the economy first and politics later, work on the easier tasks first and the more difficult ones later," Ma said after winning a second four-year term. "There is no rush to open up political dialogue. It's not a looming issue."

That could present a challenge to the Chinese leadership, which insists that Taiwan is part of Chinese territory and sooner or later needs to come under Beijing's control. The two sides split amid civil war in 1949.

Hu has pivoted sharply away from the intimidation and bullying that used to be a hallmark of Beijing's policy toward the island, but his government continues to point hundreds of missiles at Taiwanese targets and maintains its long-standing threat to resort to force if Taiwan resists unification indefinitely.

Failure by Hu to produce concrete political achievements in Taiwan could strengthen the hand of less patient Chinese leaders emerging in the military and the government.

Ma, for his part, has ruled out even meeting Hu.

"My formal capacity is the president of the Republic of China," he said, referring to Taiwan's official name. "It will not be possible for me to meet with mainland leaders in another capacity. People here would not accept it."

No Chinese leader could acknowledge Ma's status as ROC president, because to do so would be to accept that a separate China exists alongside the People's Republic. That violates the so-called "one-China policy," the central canon of Beijing's approach to Taiwan for the past 62 years.

In its first reaction to Ma's victory, China's official Xinhua News Agency took a positive tone, reflecting Beijing's view that he was a far better choice than challenger Tsai Ing-wen, whose party maintains its theoretical support for an independent Taiwan.

"The results of the elections have indicated that the peaceful development of the cross-strait relations is a correct path and has been widely recognized by the Taiwan people," Xinhua said.

Although the Nationalists formally advocate unification between the sides, they reject the idea of doing so under mainland communist rule and have decisively sidelined the issue in favor of maintaining the status quo.

Chao Chun-shan, a China expert at Taipei's Tamkang University, said that Hu's imminent departure makes it unlikely that Beijing will press Ma to make a political deal anytime soon. If a Taiwan political gambit failed, Hu's successors could come off looking bad while they are still in the relatively vulnerable position of just beginning to consolidate their power, Chao said.

"I don't think there is room for talks on a political deal in (Ma's) second term." Chao said. "Economics is the first priority."

There is considerable appetite in Taiwan for pursuing the kind of economic deals that Ma brought to fruition during his first term. Under his leadership Taiwan increased the number of direct mainland China flights, opened itself to large numbers of free-spending Chinese tourists and cut tariffs on scores on Taiwanese exports to the mainland.

That contrasts sharply with a strong local resistance to engaging China politically, out of fear that any deal could undermine the island's hard-won democratic freedoms. Polls over the last 10 years have shown that no more than 10 percent of Taiwanese favor union with the mainland, with most of the rest supporting an open-ended continuation of Taiwan's de facto independence.

Sixty-three year-old Tsai supporter Victor Tsai — no relation to the defeated candidate — said he too favored strengthening economic ties with the mainland, as long as there were no political strings attached.

"I do business with China all the time but it doesn't influence my political views," he said.