The more than 1,100 Chinese missiles aimed at Taiwan are less of an impediment to a meeting with President Xi Jinping than whether talks would be backed by the island’s people, Taiwan President Ma Ying-jeou said.
Any meeting would be contingent on Ma being present in his official capacity as President of the Republic of China (Taiwan), he said in an interview at his offices in Taipei yesterday. While not ruling out an engagement with Xi before the end of his term in 2016, Ma said conditions aren’t yet ripe.
“The most important factors are whether the country needs it, whether the people support it, that we can meet with dignity -- those are the things that will make it possible,” Ma said of a meeting with Xi. “There are still conditions to be created.”
For Ma, who has seen his popularity slide since his re-election last year, the challenge is to balance his drive for improved China relations with concerns on the island that closer ties will lead the mainland to dominate its smaller, democratic neighbor. Since taking office in 2008 he has signed trade pacts with China, which claims sovereignty over Taiwan and was enraged by the pro-independence stance of Ma’s predecessor Chen Shui-bian.
Ma, 63, said yesterday that many of those concerns were misplaced, with some in 2010 having derided the Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement to reduce barriers with China as “sugar-coated poison.”
Taiwan will maintain curbs on inflows of mainland workers and restrict investment in sensitive industries, he said.
Ma, a former Taipei mayor who holds law degrees from New York University and Harvard Law School, saw his personal disapproval rating rise to 70 percent in a May poll by Taipei-based cable news network TVBS. The ruling Kuomintang party, known as the KMT, has a 25-seat buffer to the opposition Democratic Progressive Party in the legislature.
Ma may need more time before a Xi meeting as “there has always been concern that he is going to sell Taiwan to China,” said Peter Kurz, Citigroup Inc.’s Taipei-based head of research. “From my standpoint it would be a very positive development. To any extent that there’s reduction in cross-strait tension and political risk, it’s positive.”
Then-KMT Chairman Lien Chan met Xi’s predecessor Hu Jintao during Chen’s administration in 2005, with both backing the “1992 consensus” under which both sides agree there is one China. Chen’s DPP had advocated a popular vote on whether the island should declare formal independence.
President Versus Party
Xi last week sent a message of congratulations to Ma on the latter’s re-election as KMT chairman. The English-language report carried by the official Xinhua News Agency described Xi as top leader of the Communist Party of China, not as the country’s president.
Taiwan’s opposition would not support Ma meeting Xi during his term in office if he was presented as chairman of the KMT rather than Taiwan President, Liao Da-chi, director at National Sun Yat-sen University’s Institute of Political Science, said by phone yesterday. On its side, “China won’t accept Ma as a president,” Liao said, making a meeting in the remainder of his term difficult.
Under the Ma administration’s closer economic ties with the mainland, Chinese tourists spent NT$292.6 billion ($9.8 billion) in Taiwan from 2008 through June 30. In 2012, over 2 million Chinese tourists visited the island, making up 43 percent of leisure visitors.
“Since 2003, China has been our biggest trade partner and export market,” Ma said. “More and more people can see that liberalization is a path Taiwan must take.”
A pact to reduce barriers to services trade was signed last month and will be debated by lawmakers from July 29.
Taiwan allowed banks to take yuan deposits and sell yuan products domestically in February, and Ma said Taiwan hopes to conclude a trade-in-goods accord with China by the end of this year.
Political ties have also warmed to their best level in more than 60 years. China fired missiles into target zones close to the northern and southern coasts of Taiwan in 1996, coinciding with the island’s first direct presidential elections.
By the end of last year, there were more than 1,100 short-range Chinese ballistic missiles targeting Taiwan, according to the U.S. Department of Defense’s Annual Report to Congress.
Ma said the removal of those wouldn’t mean much militarily as the projectiles are mobile and could just as quickly be brought back.
It’s China’s refusal to accept Ma as a sovereign leader and meet him on those grounds that is an obstacle to talks.
“Our relationship with mainland China is very subtle. We don’t have a state-to-state relationship and we do not view mainland China as a foreign state,” Ma said. Under Taiwan’s constitution, however, “we are of course a sovereign nation.”
Taiwan’s allegiance to the U.S. also remains strong. The U.S. has pledged to help maintain peace and security through the Taiwan Relations Act of 1979.
The KMT retreated to Taiwan in 1949 during China’s civil war, with leader Chiang Kai-shek basing the Republic of China government out of Taipei.
Mainland China, which resumed sovereignty over Hong Kong in 1997, has held up the city as a possible model for reunification with Taiwan. It has also pledged to allow popular election of the city’s new leader in 2017, though a system of universal suffrage hasn’t yet been agreed upon.
China’s top official in the former British colony, Zhang Xiaoming, said on July 16 that the mainland will work to “design a universal suffrage system that matches Hong Kong’s actual situation with Hong Kong characteristics.”
“We know that Hong Kong, after the handover to mainland China, has been trying for universal suffrage,” Ma said. “We know that mainland China has made promises and we’re of course pleased to see Hong Kong changing in this direction.”