Taiwan's 'Mayor Ma' says right things about China
By Richard Halloran
Chairman Ma Ying-jeou of Taiwan's Nationalist Party, better known as the Kuomintang, did a marathon swing through the United States a couple of weeks ago to deliver several pertinent messages:
Altogether, Ma contended, this approach would reduce the possibility that the U.S. would be "dragged into a major war involuntarily with mainland China." The 1979 Taiwan Relations Act requires the U.S. to take seriously a Chinese threat to Taiwan.
Ma's journey took him to Washington, New York, Boston, San Francisco and Los Angeles, where he addressed think tanks and universities. Curiously, his visit attracted little media attention despite his rising visibility in Taiwan, where he has been mayor of Taipei since 1998 and is seen as the front-runner to succeed Chen.
In Washington, Ma's critical meeting was with Deputy Secretary of State Robert Zoellick, who is the Bush administration's point man on China-Taiwan policy. After the administration had vacillated for four years, Zoellick delivered an address in New York last September that is regarded as the administration's definitive statement on China.
Zoellick said that China, with its muscular military buildup and blossoming economy, had caused "a cauldron of anxiety" among Americans.
At the same time, he said, "we now need to encourage China to become a responsible stakeholder in the international system." The concept of "stakeholder" does not translate easily into Chinese; Zoellick said it meant taking responsibility within the international economic and security order.
Ma, who speaks fluent English, used the same term with Zoellick, saying Taiwan sought good relations with China, Japan and the United States. "We want to become a responsible stakeholder in East Asia."
Zoellick's response was unknown as there was no press briefing after his conversation with Ma, presumably in an effort to placate Beijing, which objects strenuously to any contact between American and Taiwanese officials.
Ma, who was careful not to assert that he would be his party's presidential candidate in 2008, advocated a five-point plan to improve relations between Taipei and Beijing. They have been especially sour since the independence-minded Chen took office in 2000.
First, Ma said, a Kuomintang president would resume negotiations with China based on a "one China principle" that allowed for differing interpretations. Beijing has insisted that accepting its definition of "one China" would be mandatory in any negotiation.
Second, the Kuomintang would seek a 30-year to 50-year peace accord under which Taiwan would not declare formal independence and China would give up its threat to use military force to conquer Taiwan.
Third, economic relations across the Taiwan Strait would be normalized by setting up direct air links, letting Chinese tourists come to Taiwan, and permitting Taiwanese to offer financial services in China.
Fourth, Beijing would agree to Taiwan's participation in international forums such as the World Health Organization and the United Nations. Ma acknowledged that this would be the most difficult point on which to get Beijing's agreement.
Lastly, educational exchanges would be expanded. Ma noted that Taiwan had 169 universities, and almost everyone in Taiwan can be admitted. On the mainland, only 18 percent of high school graduates get into college; many could go to Taiwan to fill up its excess capacity.
For all his serious talk, Ma displayed a wry sense of humor. He said he preferred to be called Mayor Ma rather than Chairman Ma because some Americans mistook his name as "Chairman Mao," the late leader of the Chinese Communist Party. That, Ma said, "could be fatal to me."
Richard Halloran is a Honolulu-based journalist and former New York Times correspondent in Asia.