Cross-strait Relations on the Eve of Ma Ying-jeou's Second Term

by Steven M. Goldstein
May 17, 2012

In January 2012, Taiwan re-elected President Ma Ying-jeou to a second term. On the eve of Ma’s May 20 inauguration, Steven Goldstein (Smith College) provides an outlook for cross-strait relations in the president’s second term and offers key indicators for what might shape the relationship in the months and years ahead.

When Ma Ying-jeou was elected for a second term as Taiwan’s president this past January, there were sighs of relief in both Beijing and Washington. While both capitals had feigned nonintervention in Taiwan’s domestic affairs, each side had been concerned that an opposition victory might prove a setback to its interests in the area—and had signaled so.

Leaders on the mainland had warned that, unless the opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) was willing to reverse its refusal to accept the basis for the cross-strait talks during the past four years (the 1992 Consensus on “one China”), the positive momentum established would be lost. Washington was less specific, but at the very least it seemed clear there was concern that a DPP-led government would endanger the cross-strait calm considered an essential U.S. interest in the area.

While Ma’s re-election might serve to avoid an immediate threat to stability in cross-strait relations, the first explicit clue to the direction that the next four years might take will have to wait until his inauguration speech on May 20. It was on this occasion, four years ago, that Ma made a gesture on the “one China” issue that made the subsequent talks and agreements possible. However, in the four months since his re-election, there have been clues already—some not so encouraging—about future directions that might be worth considering in anticipation of that speech.

The progress of the past four years has been made possible by both sides agreeing to an agenda that puts the relatively easy issues first and leaves the hard ones for later. For Ma, who had pledged “no independence, no unification, and no use of force,” this has meant an avoidance of political questions in favor of economic and cultural agreements. Beijing accepted this agenda. It set aside its active pursuit of the reunification objective for the moment and focused on preventing Taiwan’s independence while building goodwill on the island through tourism and trade—”winning the hearts of the Taiwan people.”

As Ma’s first administration was ending, some commentators (including this one) wondered if in his second term, Beijing might press for an expansion of the scope of the cross-strait agenda and quicken its pace by pressing to move toward more difficult military and political issues that had been deferred during the previous four years. Thus far, this has not been the dominant theme in post-election speeches and commentaries from authoritative Chinese sources. The emphasis has instead been on maintaining the past policy of placing easy issues first and putting political differences aside while seeking to build “mutual political trust” as the foundation for further movement.

However, even as China pursues this more temperate and patient strategy, Beijing undoubtedly has not forgotten the unpredictability of Taiwan’s policies, which has been apparent since the democratization of the 1990s. There is in the first instance a concern that concessions made to one ruling party to advance the relationship might be exploited by another for objectives inimical to Beijing’s interests. More generally, Beijing often gives the impression that it is not totally confident that time is on its side. There is the concern that an extended period of cross-strait stability might serve to enhance Taiwan’s confidence and its sense of separateness from the mainland rather than to nurture the urge for reunification. Although low-key, there have been suggestions since the election of concerns about a growing Taiwan identity and the need to move beyond economic issues that seem to resonate with this theme.

In Taiwan, in the period since the election, there have been indications of Ma’s political weakness that threaten his ability to keep that momentum going. Despite his win in January, there are increasing signs of growing public distrust regarding the direction that his policies have taken. This was evident last fall when Ma spoke of a peace accord with the mainland. Although his campaign tried to make clear that the conditions under which this might happen made such an agreement unrealizable anytime soon, the immediate negative public reaction suggested that his campaign had clearly made a mistake. Similarly, in March 2012, when the chairman of the Kuomintang (KMT) visited Beijing and depicted cross-strait relations as “one country, two areas” (yi guo liang qu), the public reaction was immediate and clearly very negative, not only to that idea but also, if the few public opinion polls available are accurate, to Ma’s mainland policies in general.

One poll by the TVBS polling center indicated that 53% of those surveyed on Taiwan did not agree with the formulation; 55% were dissatisfied with the Ma government’s policies and handling of cross-strait relations; and 59% agreed that his administration was leaning toward the mainland. Finally, 68% of those surveyed favored maintaining the current status quo—the highest percentage since the poll began in 2000. Although this is only one poll, the findings are generally consistent with the trends in a March 2012 poll by the Mainland Affairs Council (MAC) that found that 62% of those polled favored either “status quo now, decision later” or indefinite status quo. Similarly, in the MAC poll 33% felt that cross-strait exchanges were going “too fast,” an increase of about 30% from the previous November, while both polls showed an increase in popular perceptions that the mainland was unfriendly to Taiwan’s government.

Although the political waters of Taiwan have been roiled by several domestic issues this spring—for example, the importation of American beef and the domestic economy—these numbers, as well as others regarding Ma’s popularity, suggest that he may well face popular resistance as he seeks to continue the policies of his first administration. Moreover, the DPP, whose uncompromising criticism of Ma’s mainland policy has left voters with little choice other than to stay with Ma or risk a rupture with the mainland, is in the midst of a reassessment of its cross-strait policy. At the moment the direction of this reassessment is unclear. However, should a more moderate position emerge that presents to voters an alternative future for cross-strait relations, this could undermine Ma’s image at home as the default choice in dealing with the mainland. Indeed, recent indications from Beijing that it is prepared to engage DPP politicians suggest political hedging against just such an eventuality.

To make myself clear, given Ma’s re-election, statements from both sides of the strait that relations will continue on their established course, and that plans are already in the works for another high-level meeting of “unofficial” organizations from Taiwan and the mainland, there is considerable evidence that after Ma takes the oath of office on May 20, the past trajectory of cross-strait relations will be maintained. However, observers should also be attentive to signs, admittedly secondary at the moment, that there may be bumps in the road ahead due to his eroding domestic support.

From the Chinese side, it needs to be similarly emphasized that the continuation of the status quo based on economic and cultural exchanges is most secure when it appears to be contributing to movement toward reunification. To be sure, China’s leaders have a full political agenda, with issues that range from leadership struggles and succession to domestic unrest and foreign policy challenges in the Asia-Pacific. Certainly, they would prefer not to have the Taiwan issue added to that agenda. However, a status quo of stagnation in cross-strait relations or evidence of backsliding resulting from domestic political resistance in Taiwan might well test Beijing’s patience.

It should not be forgotten that the present momentum in cross-strait relations depends not only on a politically strong leadership in Taiwan that can retain the confidence of the people that the direction of Taiwan-China relations will not lead to a diminishing of the island’s sovereignty. It also requires Chinese leadership with the patience and confidence that current trends are moving in a direction favorable to its ultimate goal of reunification. However, given lingering suspicions on both sides and the sharply different long-range aspirations of each, it cannot be assumed that the amount of patience on one side and political strength on the other is inexhaustible.

In a recent article in the Chinese Communist Party journal Seeking Truth (Qiushi), Wang Yi, director of the Taiwan Affairs Office, noted that “generally speaking, opportunities and challenges coexist [in cross-strait relations], but there are more opportunities than challenges.” At this time, that may well be the case, but, as suggested above, the challenges lurk not far from the surface.

Steven Goldstein is Sophia Smith Professor of Government at Smith College and the Van Beuren Chair Distinguished Visiting Professor at the U.S. Naval War College. He was a 2010–11 Research Associate in the National Asia Research Program, a joint initiative between NBR and the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.