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Ma on the antlers of a dilemma: The Economist
Taiwan News, Staff Writer
2014-03-28 08:00 PM
TAIPEI (Taiwan News) – President Ma Ying-jeou’s ambitions have collided with popular suspicion of China, British weekly The Economist reported in its latest edition.

The magazine recently interviewed Ma at the Presidential Office about his most recent travails, in particular the occupation of the Legislative Yuan by students opposed to the trade-in-services pact his administration signed with China last June. The protesters have been ensconced at the Legislature since March 18 and are planning a massive street protest scheduled for Sunday afternoon.

Students have demanded the government take the agreement away from the Legislative Yuan and first launch a framework law guiding all negotiations and accords with China. Ma’s administration has been at best lukewarm if not overall negative to the demands.

Commenting on its interview with Ma, the magazine’s Banyan column said Ma “remains as unwilling as any leader in Beijing to admit to any fundamental flaws in strategy.”

The publication wrote Ma might have been styling himself after Sun Yat-sen, the founder of both his Kuomintang and the Republic of China, still Taiwan’s official name. “Sun is revered as a nationalist hero not just by the KMT but, across the Taiwan Strait, by the Chinese Communist Party too.”

Ma “may also hope to be feted on both sides of the strait – in his case as a leader responsible for a historic rapprochement.”

The Economist remarks that reconciliation remains distant, while Ma is being taunted by opponents as the “9-percent president” because of his abysmal poll ratings over the past year.

During the interview, the president “reels off the numbers of two fast-integrating economies: a tenfold increase in six years in mainland tourists to Taiwan, …, cross-straits flights from none at all to 118 every day.”

China’s strategy to reabsorb Taiwan is plain,” The Economist remarked. With both economies becoming more intertwined, China was assuming resistance to unification would wane, according to the magazine. Taiwan would follow Hong Kong as an “autonomous” part of China, but with its own army.

Nevertheless, Ma defended his strengthening of ties to China as “a first line of defence against Chinese aggression,” because Beijing could not change the status quo by non-peaceful means without paying a dear price.

The magazine also mentioned Ma’s hopes for a summit with his counterpart in China, Xi Jinping. Even though Chinese officials mentioned several times that this autumn’s Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Beijing was not suitable as a location because of its international aura, Ma still considered a meeting somewhere possible, The Economist wrote.

The magazine quoted opposition Democratic Progressive Party policy chief Joseph Wu as saying an eventual summit might damage the KMT in the 2016 presidential election, even though the president insisted a majority of the public supported him meeting with Xi. Ma was only trying to leave a personal legacy, Wu said.

The Economist said the DPP’s lead in opinion polls alarmed both China and the United States, as the latter also worried about “another flare-up in a dangerous region.” Washington observers feared for more confrontational tactics if the DPP returned to power after an eight-year stint in the opposition.

The protests against the trade pact were more than just “a little local difficulty” for Ma, the Banyan column said. The students “tapped a vein of popular mistrust of Mr. Ma and of economic integration” with China. Protesters portray the president “as either a mainland stooge or as clueless and out of touch.” The magazine also referred to caricatures giving Ma antlers, a reference to his recent comment that deer-antlers used in Chinese medicine were hair growing from the deer’s ears.

Many in Taiwan questioned Ma’s assertion that relations with the United States were better than ever since the two countries broke off diplomatic relations in 1979. Yet, despite President Barack Obama’s “pivot” to Asia, its promises to Taiwan were rarely mentioned. The Economist noted that US academic John Mearsheimer’s remarks in the policy journal the National Interest that Washington might once prefer to abandon Taiwan and to allow China to force it into unification had drawn considerable attention on the island. “For some, abandonment is a fact of life and unification a matter of time,” the magazine wrote, quoting an unnamed academic as saying nobody was on Taiwan’s side and the country had to rely on China’s goodwill.

Despite the protests, The Economist still saw Ma sticking to the middle ground between defeatism vis-à-vis China and confrontation with Beijing. The president “sounds weary with the effort, and Taiwan’s people seem weary of him.” Voter pragmatism and infighting within the DPP might still result in the election of another KMT candidate in the next presidential election, according to the magazine.

But if Ma “hoped to leave office with cross-strait relations stabilized, and with his own role as an historic peacemaker recognized on both sides and around the world, he seems likely to be disappointed,” The Economist concluded.

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