Beijing undermining President Ma
By Frank Ching
With Taiwan’s presidential election barely a year away, public opinion polls show that President Ma Ying-jeou is losing ground.
Survey results released by TVBS on March 15 showed the president tied with former Premier Su Tseng-chang and trailing Tsai Ing-wen, who chairs the opposition Democratic Progressive Party.
Ever since he became president in 2008, Ma has suffered from low support ratings, which were partly a reflection of the economy. He has proven a less than charismatic leader, with cross-strait relations being the one area ― a very important one to be sure ― where he has had noticeable success.
Cross-strait tensions have dropped dramatically, and, during his first year in office, accords on passenger and cargo flights, shipping and food safety were signed. Last year, a major, though controversial, agreement on trade was reached.
However, on the question of greater international space ― arguably the most important issue from Taiwan’s perspective ― the results have been mixed.
True, in conformity with President Ma’s “modus Vivendi?approach, the mainland has not sought to win over the 23 countries that maintain diplomatic relations with Taiwan. The recent visit to Taiwan of President Fernando Lugo of Paraguay is proof of that.
Lugo, during his election campaign in 2008, publicly said that he wanted to establish diplomatic relations with Beijing. However, after his inauguration, he did not sever ties with Taiwan, suggesting that China did not encourage such a development.
A similar thing happened with El Salvador. There, the leftist candidate Mauricio Funes won the presidential election in 2009 and was quoted as saying that he wanted to establish relations with China.
However, China did not pursue this opening. Instead, its spokesman said: “Despite the absence of diplomatic ties, the Chinese people have friendly feelings toward the Salvador people and we are willing to carry out friendly exchanges and mutually beneficial cooperation in various areas with Salvador.?
Not a word was said about establishing diplomatic relations.
Beijing has never publicly responded to the Ma proposal but, through its actions, the mainland has made it clear that it would not poach any of Taiwan’s diplomatic allies.
However, Taiwan’s greatest desire is to play a role in international organizations. Beijing has allowed Taiwan to be an observer in the World Health Assembly for the last two years but this is a status that Beijing can bestow or withhold on a year by year basis. If, for example, the DPP returned to power, Taiwan could well lose this status.
Besides, there has been no progress on Taiwan’s desire to participate in the work of the International Civil Aviation Organization and the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change.
This is because Beijing does not want to create any precedent for “two Chinas" or “one China, one Taiwan." It prefers Taiwan to be represented on international bodies not by its government but by an NGO.
Indeed, Beijing now even wants to limit Taiwan’s participation in international organizations even where the government is not involved.
Thus, last October, Chinese representatives at the 23rd Tokyo International Film Festival demanded that the Taiwan delegation be renamed “Taiwan, China?or “Chinese Taipei.?/span>
After the Taiwanese objected, the Japanese organizers refused to change the name. In the end, neither the Chinese nor the Taiwanese delegations participated.
Subsequently, Chinese President Hu Jintao suggested that Taiwan should negotiate with the mainland ahead of time its participation in international nongovernmental meetings. But this was immediately rejected by Taiwan.
It is incomprehensible why Beijing would want to insist that even nongovernmental bodies in Taiwan should obtain the mainland’s permission to take part in international activities. This is narrowing, not expanding, Taiwan’s international space.
Beijing is playing with fire. As the latest survey results show, there is a real possibility that Ma may lose the next election, with the pro-independence DPP returning to power.
The eight years of the Chen Shui-bian presidency should have taught Beijing that having the DPP in power is not in its interests.
Yet, through its actions Beijing is undermining President Ma so that, in the eyes of the electorate, even his vaunted cross-strait policy of de-emphasizing the country’s sovereignty in the hope of winning the mainland’s cooperation is failing to gain Taiwan the international space that it needs.
If the mainland continues in this way, the outcome next year may well be tragic ― and not just for Ma.
Frank Ching is a journalist and commentator in Hong Kong. He can be reached at Frank.firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter: FrankChing1.