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The Asian side of the world

Jean-François Sabouret

Part two. National challenges and their strategies to overcome them

Taiwan-China relations: Ma Ying-jeou’s new Chinese policy

Frank Muyard

Texte intégral

1November 2008

  • 1 Muyard, F., “Taiwan Elections 2008: Ma Ying-jeou’s Victory and the KMT’s Return to Power”, China P (...)

2The relations between Taiwan and China took a new turn after Ma Ying-jeou won the presidential elections in March 2008 to become President of Taiwan. Adding to the Kuomintang (KMT)’s victory over the Legislative Yuan in January, Ma’s success brought the KMT back under the power of Taiwanese executives after eight years of the Chen Shui-bian government and the pro-separatist Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) 1.

3Behind the slogan “no unification, no independence, no use of force”, and the commitment to not conduct negotiations on unification during his time in office, Ma and the KMT’s new Chinese policy is based on a gradual economic, symbolic and political rapprochement with China with four objectives: to lower political and military tension in the Formosa Strait, strengthen economic ties with China that would lead to a common market, counter Taiwanese separatism and draw up favourable conditions for a possible future unification.

4Since Ma’s inauguration on 20th of May 2008, the key part of the government’s programme has been centered on relations with China to the detriment of relations with other countries or local economic and social policy; the KMT considers China as the key to all economic and political opportunities of the island.

5Putting an end to the approach of his predecessor, Chen, and the former President, Lee Teng-hui, Ma restructured Taiwan’s Chinese policy based on accepting the so-called “1992 consensus” and the principle of “an only China” under the term, “one China, different interpretations” (yizhong gebiao).

6This change, in keeping with Beijing’s requests, made it possible to resume official talks between the two capitals through semi-governmental entities, the Straits Exchange Foundation (SEF) for Taiwan and the Association for Relations Across the Taiwan Straits (ARATS) for China, and the quick finalising of agreements widely negotiated by the previous Chen administration. Thus, the opening of direct weekend charter flights in July and hosting of Chinese tourists coming directly from China have merely formalised technical agreements concluded in 2007, but Beijing delayed its announcement until the KMT resumed power in Taiwan.

7Taipei also adopted a series of unilateral measures to facilitate economic relations with China. It has extended access to the direct mini-links (through the Kinmen and Matsu Islands), authorised exchange of the Chinese currency, the renminbi, in Taiwan, raised the maximum limit of Taiwanese investments in China, authorised Taiwan’s mayors and head of county to travel to China, loosened restrictions on Taiwanese investments in foreign funds with Chinese assets, simplified the process of welcoming Chinese professional experts in Taiwan and relaxed rules for stock market listing of foreign companies and investment of Chinese funds in the Taiwanese Stock Exchange.

8Ma and his government greatly depend on this new policy because of its expected economic benefits. Ma was, in fact, elected on his promises of economic “revival”, even though the average growth was above 5% in Chen Shui-bian’s second term, and the Taiwanese expect the new government to honour its commitments of a rapid increase in income and economic opportunities. It is not, however, free from risks because its success depends mainly on Beijing’s good will and the uncertain benefit of an increased opening of its economy to China for Taiwan, while the island is already the most integrated country of the region into the Chinese economy, in terms of investment and trade. Finally, there is a risk that Ma’s policy will go well beyond his electoral commitments, both in terms of speed and scope, Ma therefore needs concrete results to justify its validity. However, economically, diplomatically or to a military threat, Beijing’s answer is rather lukewarm and tangible results for the time being are quite poor.

9The opening up of Taiwan to Chinese tourists and the direct air links that were publicly announced as the miracle solution for the economic problems of the island, turned out to be disappointing. Out of the 3,000 daily number of tourists promised by Ma, only 300 Chinese tourists per day on average came to Taiwan from July to September. Regarding its international ties, in spite of the “diplomatic truce” announced by Ma based on his “mutual non-denial” concept between the two capitals, and in spite of the decision not to submit an official request for Taiwan’s membership to the UN (for the first time since 1993), Beijing did not grant nor flexibility nor concession regarding Taiwan’s participation in international bodies or forums.

10Ma’s Chinese policy is largely supported by Western capitals even if the anxiety of a too advanced alignment of Taipei with Beijing has urged the U. S. Department of State to remind Taipei of the importance of its relations with the United States. It is clear for everyone, however, that this policy is doomed to failure if China does not respond significantly to the Taiwanese population’s requests for a better international representation of the island. Even if the majority of the Taiwanese are in favour of easing tension in the Strait and maintaining the current status quo, they demand respect for their sovereignty and independence and yearn for an international status and recognition. The ball is now in Beijing’s court to show that it is not the main obstacle for improving relations in the strait. Concrete progress by next summer, especially at the next WHO Assembly meeting, or the upcoming APEC summits in Peru in 2008 and Singapore in 2009 will be essential to convince the Taiwanese of the validity of Ma’s approach.

11What is also worrisome for many of the Taiwanese people, and beyond the 41% who voted against him, is the alleged disappearance of Ma’s Taiwan-centered speech since May and the fact that it will be replaced by a new “Chinese nationalist” discourse focusing on the Republic of China and the great Chinese nation (zhonghua minzu). For Kuomintang, the rise of the pro-unification discourse in the party since 2004 and the gradual reintegration of politicians from the New Chinese Party (NP) and People’s Party (PP), which originated from the former anti-Lee Teng-hui factions of the KMT, have not come as a surprise. As a matter of fact, since the former KMT Chairman Lien Chan’s trip to China in 2005, the KMT has officially joined forces with the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) to fight against Taiwanese separatism, clearly giving priority to the union of a supposed Chinese nation at the expense of a democratic decision and the hopes of the Taiwanese people for a separate Taiwanese nation.

  • 2 Shu-ling, K., “‘State to State’ theory is dead, Ma says”, Taipei Times, 2008 and Shu-ling, K., “Ma (...)

12Ma was not, however, elected on a Chinese reunification or nationalist programme. On the contrary, he launched a campaign centered on his Taiwanese identity, defending Taiwan’s sovereignty as the Republic of China, and the commitment that Taiwan’s future could be decided by the 23 million Taiwanese people alone. He seems to have now opted for a resolute policy of promoting the Republic of China and reducing Taiwan to a mere component of it. The semantic difference is important: if Chen Shui-bian and Lee Teng-hui emphasised that “Taiwan is the ROC and the ROC is Taiwan”, Ma would only approve the first part of the assertion. Adopting a narrow constitutionalist perspective, he considers that Taiwan is only a region of the ROC whose territory also formally includes continental China. For Ma, relations between Taiwan and China are not therefore state to state relations according to Chen Shui-bian (a country on each side of the Strait, yi bian yi guo), nor special state to state relations (teshu guo yu guo guanxi) as was the case for Lee Teng-hui, but “special region to region equal relations” (duideng diqu dui diqu teshu guanxi) within the of the ROC’s Constitution2.

13Ma has therefore brought about a return to the ideological and political concept of pre-Lee Teng-hui Kuomintang, dominated by the mainland minority who had come to the island after 1945 (like his own family). He seems to put aside or ignore the last twenty years of political, sociological and diplomatic evolution characterised by the assertion of Taiwanese identity and nationalism and the increasing presence of Taiwan in the international community, in spite of limitations imposed by Beijing. This also involves a refusal to recognise the importance of constitutional amendments of the 1990s that have reduced the sovereignty of the ROC to territories under its actual control and restricted democratic practice in the ROC parliamentary and presidential elections to the population of these territories, i. e. Taiwan (including the Penghu Islands) and the Kinmen and Matsu Islands.

  • 3 “Survey on Ma’s Administration and Foreign Policy”, The Global Views Monthly, no 268, October 2008

14The problem with this pro-Chinese rhetoric, apart from it being out of touch with the country’s reality and shifting from its own election discourse, is that it goes against the grain of Taiwan’s socio-political evolution. As indicated by a survey in September 2008, 50.6% of the Taiwanese people (compared to 34.1%) support the future establishment of an independent Taiwanese state. Besides 66.3% are opposed to unification with China even if it has the same political, social and economic conditions as Taiwan (compared only 16.2% who are in favour of it), a jump of 15% in two years and 28% in four years3.

15Changes in the Taiwanese society continue to evolve in different ways compared to China. While some thought that the two societies would come together thanks to trade and capitalism, they tended to move away from each other even more with Taiwan’s democratisation and the renewal of its generation. Of course, the large number of Taiwanese people working in China has resulted in increased contacts between the population of the two countries, but this does not necessarily make them closer to the Chinese people or that they are in the same community. This has also resulted in a better awareness of the differences between the two societies: lifestyle, education, behavioural habits, relationships with others, open-mindedness, appreciation of cultures and foreign countries (especially the United States and Japan), social security and health systems, rule of law and, most of all, political freedom and democracy.

16For Ma, relations with China have proven to be more complex than expected, especially with Beijing, while the economic argument in favour of better relations with China seems hollow, at best. With less than 25% of support now, compared to 60% just after his election, Ma’s popularity rating has hit rock bottom, swept away by the economic difficulties of the island and a government of technocrats not competent enough to manage summer crises (the fall in purchasing power, typhoons, Chinese poisonous milk products, financial crisis, etc.). To put things back on an even keel, Ma should in all likelihood, make every effort to represent the wishes of the Taiwanese majority better who favour Taiwan’s development and interests over a quick-paced rapprochement with China.


1 Muyard, F., “Taiwan Elections 2008: Ma Ying-jeou’s Victory and the KMT’s Return to Power”, China Perspectives, no 73, 1-2008, 2008, p. 79-94.

2 Shu-ling, K., “‘State to State’ theory is dead, Ma says”, Taipei Times, 2008 and Shu-ling, K., “Ma refers to China as ROC territory in a magazine interview”, Taipei Times, 2008.

3 “Survey on Ma’s Administration and Foreign Policy”, The Global Views Monthly, no 268, October 2008.


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