Taiwan's President seeks closer economic ties with Beijing

I attended the Taipei press conference of President Ma Ying-jeou of the Republic of China on Taiwan on May 19. The event was to mark the midpoint of his first four year term. His approval rating has dropped to around 40 percent since his landslide election. Taiwan's high unemployment rate in the wake of the global recession plays a part in this, but there is also concern that his "detente" policy to "reduce tensions" with the People's Republic of China on the mainland is risking the island democracy's freedom.

Ma's Koumintang (KMT) party is supported by business interests who have invested heavily in China to gain access to its large market and labor pool. Ma's centerpiece is a new Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement (ECFA) with Beijing that would provide for further economic integration. Critics fear that economic integration will lead to political unification and the loss of Taiwan's de facto independence.

Ma was clearly trying to guard his flank on the issue. He stated that he would not negotiate "reunification" with China whether he was in office one or two terms. He argued that talks with Beijing are only about economics, and not about political issues. "My cross-strait policy will safeguard Taiwan with integrity and sovereignty as the Republic of China. There is no danger to integrity or sovereignty in economic prosperity from trade with China," he said.

He noted that China has over 1,300 missiles aimed at Taiwan, and that the islands defenses must remain strong because of the continuing threat from Beijing. "We have to maintain a small but elite, small but strong force to defend ourselves, to efficiently deter threats and increase the cost the mainland would have to pay for invading Taiwan." He again called for the United States to sell to the ROC F-16C/D fighter jets to replace its ageing F-5s which are outclassed by new Chinese warplanes. He also mentioned the diesel submarines that the U.S. has approved but have not been able to provide. The day before the press conference, it was announced that the first of a new fleet of fast "stealth" missile boats had become operational with the ROC Navy.

Ma's strategy is to show China that there are economic benefits from the status quo, and high risks in any attempt to upset the status quo. The United States has a strategic interest in keeping Taiwan out of Beijing's hands. The island is the key to control of the South China Sea. America also has a moral imperative to support a democratic people who want to preserve their freedom from an aggressive dictatorship. Polls show that less than 10 percent of Taiwanese want unification with the mainland. About one quarter want a formal declaration of Taiwan independence, even though it would lead to a confrontation with Beijing. Two-thirds, the majority to which Ma is trying to appeal, are content with the status quo; a de facto independence (which the island has enjoyed for over for sixty years) that avoids provoking China. There is a push by opponents of the KMT to force a referendum on ECFA, to make sure Taiwan's ability to maintain its self-governing status is not being eroded. The Obama administration has endorsed ECFA, but it must also strongly and explicitly endorse Taiwanese freedom--- and make the words meaningful by releasing the F-16s.

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