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President Ma on the move.

Byline: Tariq Al-Maeena

Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou is a man with a mission. Addressing delegates from over 120 international media organizations at the President House in Taipei last week, Ma emphasized that his policy of economic cooperation with China would continue.

Taiwan's main opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) demonstrated Sunday against President Ma's pro-China policies, which it fears would lead to the island's unification with Beijing. Reacting to this demonstration, the president reiterated that "Taiwan is the Republic of China (ROC)" and pledged to bring Taiwan's fragile economy back on track during the remainder of his term.

Fielding some very tough questions from the international press, Ma did not hesitate to emphasize that his government's policies would be to the benefit of his people in the long run. This has resulted in the resumption of cross-strait dialogue that had been suspended during the last government, "functional" exchanges were fast-tracked, people-to-people visits increased, cross-strait diplomatic competition suspended, and "Chinese Taipei" got into this year's World Health Assembly (WHA) meeting as an observer.

Much of the credit goes to Ma, a pragmatic man who has rejected his predecessor's anti-China polices and found a willing partner in the Chinese leadership. Ma has eliminated many of the obstacles that for years let investment and trade flow from Taiwan to the mainland but kept China's money out of the island.

Such a degree of economic integration seemed unthinkable when Ma took office only a year ago. The previous government's aggressive stance toward China only added to Taiwan's isolation on the world stage. Sharing a common language, history and similar cultures, Taiwanese and Chinese companies are now discussing alliances across a wide array of sectors, including real estate, financial services and judicial alliances.

Critics of Ma's policy toward China fear that such moves would lead to the unification of the island with Beijing. "Taiwan and China are different countries and can't be united," said Wang Chia-ping, 32, a protester against Ma's policies, who traveled six hours from the south to take part in the rally in Taipei.

According to Liu Shih-chung, a visiting fellow at the Center for Northeast Asian Policy Studies at the Brookings Institution in Washington, what truly matters is the challenges and uncertainties underlying such quick cross-strait detente. In that, Liu believes that Ma faces at least four challenges. The first lies in insufficient policy evaluations and an opaque policy-making process that bypasses legislative oversight, opposition checks and balances, and public approval.

Furthermore, the government failed to come up with a pros-and-cons evaluation before Ma promised to sign an economic cooperation framework agreement (ECFA) with China.

Most important, the Ma administration owes Taiwanese a clear explanation of how sovereignty is not sidelined in those negotiations and how Taiwan's economy will benefit from economic integration with China.

Second, despite Ma's formulation of "mutual nondenial" as the basis for dealings with his Chinese counterpart, the controversy over whether Beijing accepts the principle of "one China with individual interpretations" remains ambiguous.

Ma says that Chinese President Hu Jintao agrees with the principle that each side defines its own "one China" - Ma defines it as the ROC. However, there is no sign that the leadership in Beijing accepts the KMT's definition of "one China." Hu has rejected any formula of "two Chinas" when it comes to Taiwan's international status.

What worries the opposition and some of the Taiwanese is that even if Ma downplays issues of sovereignty when engaging with the PRC, there is an international impression that Taiwan is moving toward the "one China" principle as defined by Beijing.

Third, Beijing being a superpower clearly has the upper hand when it comes to cross-strait negotiations. Its concessions are limited and conditional. While the PRC has temporarily stopped bribing Taiwanese allies into switching diplomatic recognition, there is suspicion in some quarters that they are getting impatient, which means that Beijing clearly controls the game.

Beijing's consent was essential for Taiwan's WHA accession, and its observer status will be reviewed on an annual basis. Beijing retains its leverage on Taiwan's participation.

Finally and most importantly, Ma faces growing internal pressures. There are three internal constraints on the implementation of Ma's cross-strait policy. These are the infighting in KMT, the extent to which cross-strait opening will improve Taiwan's economy and the opposition's checks and balance.

Liu also cautions that these facts show that cross-strait rapprochement cannot be pushed forward without hurting democratic procedures, public consent and Taiwan's sovereignty. However, Ma's determination to forge ahead in the interest of reviving his country's economy cannot be denied, based on the results so far. As President Ma celebrates his first year in office, Taiwan finally broke a four-decade absence, and made its presence felt as an observer at the World Health Assembly in Geneva.

Copyright: Arab News 2009 All rights reserved.

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Publication:Arab News (Jeddah, Saudi Arabia)
Date:May 23, 2009
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