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The unusual urgency of Ma's Double Ten Day address
Publication Date : 15-10-2013
When Taiwan President Ma Ying-jeou said in his speech at the recent National Day celebrations that “cross-strait relations are not international relations”, he was stating the obvious.
According to the Taiwan Constitution, mainland China is part of the Republic of China. The “Act Governing Relations between the People of the Taiwan Area and the Mainland Area” defined the mainland as “the territory of the Republic of China outside the Taiwan Area”. Thus, by the legal definition, cross-strait relations are not international relations.
Taiwan's relations with mainland China are not handled by the foreign ministry but by the Mainland Affairs Council (MAC). When former Democratic Progressive Party chairwoman Tsai Ing-wen criticised Ma for making such an assertion about cross-strait relations “beyond his power”, she might have forgotten that she served as minister of the MAC from 2000 to 2004.
But in an address as high profile as the National Day speech, there is a special meaning even in stating the obvious. By clearly delineating cross-strait relations as a non-international matter, this time he knowingly put this issue at the forefront.
The proximity of Ma's speech to the meeting between former Vice President Vincent Siew and Chinese President Xi Jinping at the Apec summit prompted speculation as to whether Ma's emphasis on cross-strait relations might be a precursor to more radical gestures, perhaps even a Ma-Xi meeting before the former leaves office. While the possibility of such a meeting is still extremely low, the low approval ratings and self-induced political strife that have beleaguered Ma might ironically give him the determination to attempt more drastic moves in both domestic policy and cross-strait relations.
Modern Double Ten Day addresses have traditionally been bland affairs. They provide a chance for international observers to gauge the status of cross-strait ties and for the president to tout government achievements and paint a rosy picture of Taiwan. Ma's speeches in the past years mainly featured statistics showing Taiwan's improvement and competitiveness, the list of nations granting visa-waiving privileges to Taiwan and grand promises such as the “Golden Decade”.
This year, however, there was a sense of extraordinary urgency in Ma's speech. The president sounded engaged and alarmed, even argumentative. “There is nothing optional about our current situation. We have fallen well behind other countries, and the gap absolutely must be closed.”
“Some are concerned that liberalisation will have a negative impact on our country,” the president said in framing the debate. “However, economic competitiveness has always been Taiwan's strength ... Only if we have the courage to compete can we create economic prosperity. This is the only way forward for the structural transformation of Taiwan's economy.”
Instead of making grand promises, he was outlining the critical conditions for Taiwan's future. “I would like to stress that only by opening up our market will Taiwan's young people have a grand stage for realising their grand hopes.”
The president used the speech to finalise the “Ma Doctrine” of market liberation and international trade liberalisation amidst a cross-strait detente. Ma's isolation (he was just recently dubbed “the president with no friends” by certain publications) and his unpopularity among the Taiwanese public seems to actually give him a determination to push forward. And this should not be a surprise. Ever since his stint as a graft-busting justice minister who took on his own party shot him to political stardom, the president has been strongest and most determined in positions as an outsider. Ma won his presidency not despite of, but because of his detachment from party politics as people yearned for a breath of fresh air after corruption allegations spoiled the final years of the Chen Shui-bian administration.
As a president whose approval ratings are lingering in the single-digits, Ma might feel he has nothing to lose from making dramatic decisions. Isolation might even tempt him to think that his place is not with a public that despises him, but in history, where he might one day be remembered fondly as a reformer and peacemaker. The president, however, should resist such isolationist notions. He should use his determination for the interest of the people, even as they are giving him a thumbs-down, because that is what he promised to do when he took office.